Book Review : John Irving - A Prayer For Owen Meany (1989)

Country: USA

Genre: Literary/Drama

Pages: 627

It's easy to fall in love with A Prayer For Owen Meany. It's cute as a button, it's by no means a dumb novel and it carries a message of hope (somewhat). I expected to fall in love with, what many consider to be, John Irving's magnum opus. But I didn't. Friends and reviewers of all sorts had billed Irving as this "fucked up writer" who deals with extremely difficult themes, such as rape, pedophilia, absent parents, incest, etc. Wikipedia even has a grid of those, novel by novel. A Prayer With Owen Meany addresses a very little number of those issues. The main problem I have with this novel is that it's really safe, borderline not challenging. And every occasion conflict seems to arise, the title character takes on himself to ruin the day.

Owen Meany is a midget. A very small one if you believe the first pages of the novel, like a primordial dwarf. With the voice and all. But he later grows to be five foot tall, so what do I know? Being a midget is the only problem Owen ever had. He's abnormally smart, charismatic and nobody ever disliked him. The only person that tries to pick a fight with him in the novel ends up with a broken finger and a bitten foot. See where I'm going with this? The narrator is Owen's best friend, Johnny Wheelwright, who exiled himself from the U.S voluntarily, to teach literature in a school in Toronto. He recalls his memories with Owen Meany, like an apostle the teachings of Christ, and it's annoying as hell. Johnny is a pathetic excuse for a narrator, he cannot think by himself and cannot give one ounce of intellectual opposition to his little buddy. He follows Owen wherever he goes, gets into whatever plans he organizes and shows really poor critical thinking...yeah, until Owen teaches him how to.

So the question is: was Owen Meany meant to be a Christ-like figure? According to John Irving's afterword, yes. And it was meant that he would be irritatingly right every single time. Because prophets are always right, so Mr. Irving says. The point of A Prayer For Owen Meany to him, was that you have to be a believer to witness a miracle and the six-hundred-something pages of his books are the metamorphosis of Johnny Wheelwright into that believer. So that's the thing, Johnny is supposed to be the conflicted one, not Owen. Even if Owen is the novel's main attraction. In that sense, it's a pretty smart set-up by Irving. And he almost pulls it off. I'm not sure if the pace of the novel is an attempt at non-linearity or if he genuinely struggled with his ideas, but for five hundred pages, Johnny's inner conflict with patriotism stays unrelated with the story and makes him a nagging necessity, more than a plus to the story. It's confusing to jump back in time from Johnny's youth to 1987, only to hear him moan about the Reagan regime and loneliness. Many time I jumped over some paragraphs, silently saying: "Dude, man up".

But John Irving drives home and connect both stories around page five hundred. I don't want to spoil anything, so let's take it like this. Johnny Wheelwright has shaped his life around his friendship for Owen Meany. And that becomes a problem when Owen passes away and John loses his only beacon in the night, if I can express myself like this. In the end, Johnny is as pretty messed up character and his lack of faith is somewhat to blame for this. But for most of the novel, it reads like the longest family movie you've ever seen. The youth chapters are cute at first, but end up dragging oooon with pompous religious analogy. There is a whoooole chapter about Christmas that I would've cut off. The symbolism can get pretty cool. I particularly appreciated the JFK-Marilyn Monroe relationship as a metaphor for collective loss of innocence. The Armadillo, the sewing dummy, the base-ball cards, were also great, if not a little outspoken. Memories and objects interested me more than the actual humans of A Prayer For Owen Meany. Not a bad read, more of a beach book for intellectuals than anything else. Something tells me I should have picked up The World According To Garp for a first dance with John Irving...

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I'm a pop culture blogger and author living in Montreal, Canada with my better half Josie and my dog Scarlett. I am a proud member of author collective Zelmer Pulp and have about a dozen of short stories published to my resume.


  1. "...more of a beach book for intellectuals than anything else." well put.

    I read this book a couple years ago and I think I used the word "cute" in its review.

    The World According To Garp ; only a slightly better read.

  2. I take you're not an Irvingite Charlie. I trust your reading tastes though. I'm going to get a crack at Garp somewhere down the line.

  3. Seems Charlie and I both like the line "more of a beach book for intellectuals than anything else." I'd say that's apt. And I agree that the parts where Johnny complains about Reagan never seemed to fit in with the rest of the story. Though I did enjoy the book more than it sounds like you did. And I still need to give Garp a try

  4. It's not bad, but I appreciated the book for its mechanic, more than for it's actual story. Irving doesn't bother expressing himself through creative uses of language, but he does through the symbols he uses.

  5. I read Prayer for Owen Meany many years ago. Good book. But my favorite Irving-book is still Hotel New Hampshire. I think John Irving is a very good story teller >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  6. I haven't read any Irving, but when you said the "memories and objects interested me more than the actual humans" I became intrigued. Nice review, Ben.

  7. i like what charlie liked: "...more of a beach book for intellectuals than anything else."

    I haven't read this, but my reaction to Garp & A Widow for One Year were overwhelmingly "mehhhh." It's been years since I've read Irving, but what I remember mostly is that these are beachy "intellectual" books that deal with a shit ton of issues in a pretty glancing fashion. Just found Cider House Rules at the peace corps library, though, so maybe I'll better remember my complaints when I finish it. (Or I'll actually like it?)

    -- ellen

  8. Aw, man! I'm sorry you weren't as smitten with this as I was. I think the "intellectual beach read" (so well put) trait is what I like about Irving- I can get a juicy, dramatic story without saying goodbye to quality.

  9. Hi Benoit! I really enjoyed your review. OWEN MEANEY was one of my favorite books when I was much younger. You've inspired me to go back and revisit it with the wisdom a few decades brings and see if I'm still so crazy about it. I own all of Irving's books and he's one of my fav top ten writers.

    On a personal note, I was hiking one day in the Hollywood Hills and John Irving strode by. There was no mistaking those sturdy legs and flashing black eyes. I seconds he was away over the hill. I started to splutter and then choke, and my hiking companion (not a man of books) said, "What's the matter?" He thought I was throwing a fit. I managed to wheeze, "THAT WAS JOHN IRVING!"

    Thanks for your thoughtful review.

  10. Thank you for this! I found your blog by googling: "Prayer for Owen Meany annoying." I was feeling pretty shitty for not being in love with the book. I'm at the halfway mark, and a bit more curious now that Owen smokes a pack a day, but the Christ-child mumbo jumbo is bugging big time. Like you, I wish I had picked up The World According to Garp, instead, especially now.

    1. haha! This is a pretty cool way to find about Dead End Follies. I didn't LOVE the book either, I thought it was deceptively easy. John Irving has legions of fans because his books are easy and smooth. I've read GARP, like a year later and he's just not an author that interests me a lot.