Each month, when the Novel in a Year cohort I’m part of meets in person in Chicago, we catch up with each other on how our work is going, critique excerpts from two members, and receive master-class instruction on craft from our terrific instructor Rebecca Makkai. Invariably, titles of published novels pertinent to this or that element of writing are thrown out by this very well read group of thirteen.
When cohort member Ryan made a pithy reference to John Irving’s THE CIDER HOUSE RULES (“That’s like the cider house without the rules.”), I remembered (vaguely) the film adaptation (1999) of the novel and later visited Irving’s Wikipedia page. On the impressive long list of his works are other biggies, A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY, and THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, neither of which—like THE CIDER HOUSE RULES—I had read.
Because CIDER HOUSE is set in the same time period (the 1950s) as the novel I’m writing, I ordered a copy. When it arrived, I was dismayed by its girth.
Advice books tell unpublished novelists like me we must keep our manuscript under 100,000 words (about 300 pages) if we dream of getting published. However, if you’re an established, popular writer like John Irving or Amy Tan (e.g. IN THE VALLEY OF AMAZEMENT), you can keep going as long as you want.* I knew the hours I spent reading Irving’s novel would be hours not spent working on my own book, but dug in, determined to absorb from a popular master every bit of writing insight I might discover.
The 602 pages of THE CIDER HOUSE RULES are packed with wonderful details, details that are mentioned over and over (and over) in one long chapter after another. Early on, we learn Dr. Wilbur Larch, the celibate obstetrician/abortion provider at St. Cloud’s, the orphanage/maternity home/abortion clinic in St. Cloud’s, Maine, is addicted to ether, and we are reminded of this a thousand times. That one of the two nurses at the orphanage (Nurse Edna or Nurse Angela, I couldn’t keep them straight) is secretly in love with Dr. Larch is established when she is introduced, but her unrequited adoration is mentioned again and again. (I got it! I got it!)
I feel like a jerk—a nobody writer criticizing a best selling novelist—but I found the text dense, the tone glib, the narrator intrusive, and an opening section that went around in circles (albeit entertaining ones) for many, many pages before the story took off.
All that said, the 1950s world Irving built felt a lot like the one I’m building in my own manuscript, which made me happy, though his characters are way more socially enlightened than mine. (Nary a whiff of racism arises among the apple orchard’s elite owners when white Homer Wells falls in love with black Rose Rose.)
The most valuable takeaway, though, was Irving’s handling of sex. THE CIDER HOUSE doesn’t contain steamy sex scenes, but a lot of sex happens in this story, and the sex that happens provides the narrative “turns” that send the novel in the next defining direction. Wilbur Larch’s only sexual experience gives him the disease that leads to his ether addiction and lifelong celibacy. Candy and Wally’s unplanned pregnancy brings them to St. Cloud’s for an abortion, and there they meet adult orphan Homer Wells, the book’s co-protagonist (along with Larch), the third person in the book’s love triangle. (One might argue TCHR is actually a love rectangle, Larch’s love for Homer the fourth post.) Candy and Homer conceive baby Angel in the cider house. Angel grows up and falls in love with Rose Rose, daughter of knife-wielding picking crew boss Mr. Rose, reshaping Homer’s position on performing abortions.
In THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, Irving treats the realities and results of sex straightforwardly, without flinch or gloss. Babies are conceived—in and out of wedlock—pregnancies are terminated or taken to term; some children are kept, some relinquished, some adopted, some not.
The novel I am writing, WINTERSET, set in my own hometown in the 1950s, also involves adultery, fornication, an unplanned pregnancy, a home for unwed mothers, and childbirth. Without setting out to do so—long before I picked up THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, I found myself writing about sexual circumstances that have defining consequences. These issues are germane to the story I’m telling, and I’m not shying away, either.
Irving inadvertently gave me license to keep doing what I’m doing, so hats off to him and Dr. Wilber Larch.
*IN THE VALLEY OF AMAZEMENT, 600+ pages; WAR AND PEACE (Tolstoy) is 1,225 pages.