A Prayer for Owen Meany
By John Irving
- Date finished: June 24, 2014
- Genre: Fiction
- Year: 1989
- Project: n/a
- Reading List: Summer 2014
- Grade: A
- Thoughts upon reading:
While reading most of A Prayer for Owen Meany, I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to feel. The book had been lauded as one of Irving’s most “comic” novels, though I thought The World According to Garp was much funnier. I figured that it was supposed to be sentimental and a little sad, but I only felt emotionally involved at the very, very end.
That being said, this book was very, very good, and simply a joy to read. For me, this book was about a friendship; John Wheelright is best friends with the unusually short, and very high-voiced, Owen Meany. They grow up together in small town New Hampshire, attend an exclusive boys prep school, and their lives – like many others – are disrupted by the Vietnam War.
This book is also about God, faith, and belief. During a summer Little League game, a stray foul ball hit by Owen while the boys are 11 accidentally hits John’s mother in the head. She’s instantly killed.
You see, Owen believes that he’s an “instrument of God”, believing his life to be fated. At one point, he sees a vision of the day he’ll die. He later dreams of how it will happen. Throughout the book, John has to contend with his friend’s ominous beliefs, finding ways to rationalize and explain them. By the end, though, he believes Owen’s life – Owen himself – was a miracle, and credits him for his belief in God.
It’s an interesting concept, though I wasn’t necessarily “taken” by the faith argument. I appreciated it, especially the grace with which Irving presents his argument for belief. But I was left with my own questions about Owen and his claims – perhaps I, like John, am still just a “doubter”. Whatever the case, I was actually a little frightened of Owen Meany at times, to be honest. At one point, Owen is playing the Christ child in his church’s nativity play. Owen has a complicated relationship with his parents, a fact that was never really explained. Which is unfortunate, because when Owen realizes that his parents are in the audience, he rises from the manager and screams at them to leave, saying that they “don’t belong there”, that their presence is “sacrilegious”. Owen is a religious child, but he’s not a particularly forgiving or kind one, which is a little disturbing. Should I believe in the miracle that is Owen Meany? Or, do I want to believe in it?
But at the very end, I will admit: it got me. The description of Owen’s death (which is not a spoiler – the entire book is leading up to Owen’s death) is absolutely heartbreaking, which is why I had to give this book an ‘A’. That’s not to mention Irving’s superb writing, which is always strong.
After finishing this book, and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius before this, I started thinking about how certain books are written for certain generations. Dave Egger’s book is about being young in the 1990’s; Irving’s book is about being young in the 1960’s. I felt a certain distance toward both, which may have dampened whatever passion I could have mustered, especially for A Prayer for Owen Meany. For those who came of age during the 60’s, this book is going to have a much more powerful message than it does for I, who came of age during the first decade of the 2000’s. That sort of thing is out of my control, but at least I can recognize it – and recognize why some books are just going to mean more to others.