Title: A Prayer for Owen Meany
Author: John Irving
Narrator: Joe Barrett
Audio Length: 26 hours and 57 minutes
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books): “In the summer of 1953, two 11-year-old boys — best friends — are playing in a Little League baseball game in New Hampshire. One of the boys hits a foul ball that kills his best friend’s mother. Owen Meany believes he didn’t hit the ball by accident. He believes he is God’s instrument. What happens to Owen after 1953 is extraordinary and terrifying. He is Irving’s most heartbreaking hero.”
Thoughts: Owen Meany is meant to be annoying; his voice, his size, and his sense of purpose, among others, all highlight Johnny’s own love/hate relationship with Owen. This is one area in which Mr. Irving succeeds. Unfortunately, he succeeds so well that it truly impacted my thoughts on the book itself. A Prayer for Owen Meany is so sweeping in its gesture of heroism and true friendship, in its ideals of self-sacrifice and remorse that the reader should have some sympathy for Owen’s fate and Johnny’s plight. Yet, my own annoyance with Owen prevented me from truly caring.
My feelings for Owen are as conflicted as Johnny Wheelwright’s are. Owen is at times so manipulative, so condescending, so righteous and so devout, I had issues with almost everything he said and did. I cannot understand why people listened to him, never questioned him and followed him blindly. Present-day John Wheelwright reflects on past events with equal parts bitterness and fond remembrance, making it difficult for a reader to discern John’s own feelings for Owen. Is it true love, as his current employer and her husband thinks? Is it completely platonic? The love/hate dynamic that exists within John regarding Owen gives the reader permission to feel similarly. It is an allowance on the part of the author like no other.
As with any novel of this length, there are many feints and sleights of hand, making it nearly impossible for the reader to predict, let alone follow at times. Mr. Irving did an excellent job starting out with one story, uncovering bits and pieces of it, only to uncover the whole truth rather dramatically at the end and forcing the reader to realize just how wrong he or she was. Not only does it make the story that much more enjoyable, it makes certain scenes in the story quite horrific because one does not see it coming until much too late.
Like most people who aspire to write a Dickensian novel, including Mr. Dickens himself, A Prayer for Owen Meany suffers from a tendency towards wordiness and rambling over inane topics. When the story was on track, it was concise, intriguing, and intelligently written. Unfortunately, many times throughout the novel, the narrator veered off onto various tangents, making it quite easy to tune out while listening to this as an audio book. However, like Dickens’ works, tuning out proved to be quite dangerous because even the most innocuous comment on the most random tangent became a clue to final mystery of Owen’s fate.
As hinted at in the title, A Prayer for Owen Meany revolves around the idea of faith. Many of the characters either question theirs, have lost theirs, or have no doubts about theirs. As a reader, it is not a novel to be read searching for answers. In fact, I feel that because my own feelings about religion and faith are so confused, I could not adequately appreciate this key theme. As religion is mentioned on practically every page, this is a huge omission on my part and directly impacted my reaction to certain scenes.
On audio, one can get a true sense of Owen’s unique voice. Joe Barrett does this to perfection, employing a high-pitched, nasal tonality that truly does grate on the nerves. The impact of “that voice” from “that boy” takes on an entirely new meaning because the listener understands completely what a character may be experiencing when faced with Owen and his voice for the first time. As for the rest of the audio performance, Mr. Barrett excels. His voice is conversationalist in tone, pleasant and soothing to one’s ear, except for when voicing Owen’s lines. His characterization of each of the characters is subtle yet distinct, making it easy for the listener to distinguish between Grandmother and Hester, Aunt Martha and John’s mother, Dan Needham versus Reverend Louis Merrill, and so forth. His enunciation is crisp and clear, and his adoption of a faint New England accent adds to the overall experience.
In spite of, or even maybe because of, my feelings for Owen, A Prayer for Owen Meany is a fascinating book. The story itself is engaging and quite interesting. There are enough teasers and hints as to Owen’s fate, that the reader is compelled to continue with the story to confirm all suspicions or suggestions. The characters themselves are all quite memorable. Cousin Hester and Grandmother remain two of my favorites, Hester as the tortured soul and Grandmother as a revered matriarch of an entire town. While I may not agree entirely with the final message regarding miracles and spiritual belief, I can respect what Mr. Irving was trying to accomplish, for no matter what one’s beliefs are about faith, A Prayer for Owen Meany forces the reader to reevaluate those beliefs. Well-written and perfectly executed, it will keep one pondering the idea of faith for a long time.