Posted by: Nathan | August 6, 2006

Owen Meany a Superb Novel


J and I stumbled upon John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany via a friend of Jen’s and the inside cover of my copy Ulysses wherein the list of books in Everyman’s Library is. We heard good things and thought we’d read it. Oh man, we are so glad we did. Meany is an amazing book and a wonderful read.

The plot is entertaining and usually quite gripping, which is always something one wants in a novel. Meany is the story of two friends: the title character and Johnny, who is the narrator. Owen is a kid with a high-pitched voice who never grows beyond childhood size, and Johnny is just a normal boy from New Hampshire whose life is forever changed by his friend. The first half of the book follows their growing up years, and it’s very well written and tremendously funny at points. The second half of the book follows their friendship as the two grow up in the Vietnam era, each facing the looming draft question. Owen signs up for the Army because he’s had a dream and believes he’s fated to go to war; Johnny doesn’t agree with the war.

The plot seems straight-forward enough, but Owen Meany is a fascinating character. He believes he is God’s instrument and that he is fated to do a certain deed. He has a recurring dream about how he’ll do this thing, and he believes he knows the exact date of his death. Certainly, a lot of supernatural events follow Owen.

All of this leads to a lot of religious questions that are really rare to encounter in a secular novel. Irving raises the issue of fatalism again and again: are certain people fated to do certain things? Do all things–no matter how miniscule–occur for a specific reason? Are all of our lives fated? He also questions what a true believer is i.e. how much doubt is healthy? Do miracles still happen? Where is the line between superstition and faith? All of these are explored or hinted at in the context of Christianity because both Owen and Johnny are Christians (though Irving is not). Here’s the first sentence of the novel: “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice–not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” If that doesn’t pique your interest, I don’t know what will.

The writing itself was brilliant overall. Irving brings the plot along at a decent clip, occasionally pausing for very annoying left wing rants about Vietnam and Ronald Reagan. The reader really invests squiself in the characters of the book, and it’s hard not to; they are so well written and the dialogue between them is authentic and enjoyable. The elements of the plot intermingle with the deeper issues of the book in such a way that the issues don’t seem contrived. The ending is one of the best I’ve read, though it borders on being almost too neat (but it’s not).

It’s a great read and a perfect book to read aloud, which J and I did. For its deep characterization, interesting plot, hilarious humor, and important religious and life questions, I give the book an A at 9.2/10. The only detracting element is the anti-Vietnam/left wing diatribes that really detract from the momentum of the narrative in places. I highly recommend it, and I will read it again. It’s a book worth reading, even for people like us who are so busy and have so many other things to read. Perhaps that’s the highest praise I can give it.


  1. Great review! If you’re interested (perhaps you’ve already seen it), the movie “Simon Birch” is nominally based on “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” It’s actually a pretty good movie.

  2. Although my husband often skipped the “leftist rants” and found them unnecessary to the novel, I think they actually help the reader understand the character, Johnny, better. Please do not let them deter you from reading the book! They really aren’t that bad. All in all I think the book was amazingly balanced in its political insights. Besides it is fiction. FICTION!! And a great book of fiction too. It may even surpass Mrs. Dalloway and A Farewell to Arms as being the best literature I’ve read yet.

  3. My favorite novel of all time.

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