Title: The Cider House Rules
Author: John Irving
Narrator: Grover Gardner
Audiobook Length: 24 hours, 11 minutes
Origins: Mine. All mine.
Bottom Line: Ho-hum story that seems designed to upset or polarize the reader with its lengthy and very clinical, almost prurient, gynecological discussions.
“Raised from birth in the orphanage at St. Cloud’s, Maine, Homer Wells has become the protégé of Dr. Wilbur Larch, its physician and director. There Dr. Larch cares for the troubled mothers who seek his help, either by delivering and taking in their unwanted babies or by performing illegal abortions. Meticulously trained by Dr. Larch, Homer assists in the former, but draws the line at the latter. Then a young man brings his beautiful fiancée to Dr. Larch for an abortion, and everything about the couple beckons Homer to the wide world outside the orphanage…”
Thoughts: John Irving’s The Cider House Rules follows the coinciding stories of Dr. Wilbur Larch and Homer Wells. Dr. Larch, a young medical professional so wrought over an encounter with a prostitute, ends up devoting his life to helping pregnant women in one fashion or another. Homer Wells is one of the many orphans who falls under his care. As Homer grows older and becomes unadoptable, Dr. Larch decides to put him to work as his apprentice, teaching him everything there is to know about obstetrics and the female reproductive system. However, Homer chafes at the idea of following in his mentor’s footprints and seeks opportunities outside the orphanage. What follows is Homer’s journey beyond the orphanage boundary, his introduction to an entirely different way of life, and the realization that some paths are preordained, no matter how hard or fast one runs from them.
After finishing the novel, one has to wonder what Mr. Irving’s true intent was. The cider house rules, to which the title references, only pertain to the latter quarter of the novel. The little action that occurs is presented in such an understated fashion that a casual reader could very well miss it. The clinical obstetric descriptions, the moral debates, and the overly long and explicit sexual discussions serve more as a method by which to push buttons rather than further the plot, such as it is. What remains is a somewhat confusing, pseudo-coming-of-age in which the finding of oneself and one’s life purpose occurs in one’s forties rather than in one’s teens.
Given the nature of the discussions and descriptions within The Cider House Rules, squeamish readers should avoid reading the novel. The detailed explanations of the entire D&C procedure, including sounds and smells, leave absolutely nothing to the imagination. Discussions about prostitution, masturbation, and everything but the sex act itself receive the same level of scrutiny and clinical imagery. There is even an entire scene dedicated to the look and feel of one of the character’s pubic hair. While a reader can appreciate such precise details, one is still left to wonder what purpose they serve the plot. The story would remain decent, and in fact might see significant improvement, had some of the medical details been left to a reader’s personal background knowledge and imagination. As it stands, such minutiae only prove a distraction from Homer’s journey and bog down the entire plot with its overabundance of such mundane – and unnecessary – particulars.
If it were not for Mr. Irving’s decidedly pro-choice rhetoric, one might question if his feelings about women are not somewhat salacious. Throughout the entire novel, his focus is on the uglier aspects of women’s sexuality rather than the beauty to be found in it. Similarly, women fair rather poorly in The Cider House Rules. From the thousands of women who seek Dr. Larch’s help to Melany and her obvious anger issues to Candy and the selfish decisions she makes, the women within the novel are nothing but victims, Olive Worthington the sole exception to this observation. They suffer at the hands of men, other women, their emotions, their own needs, and even society in general. This negativity is not overt; one cannot pinpoint one specific example, but the undercurrent of it permeates the entire novel and provides a confusing counterpoint to the multiple debates about abortion.
As for the pro-abortion stance of the novel, it is probably safe to say that anyone not already sympathetic to the plight of women and with pro-choice leanings are going to avoid this novel or at least drop it like a hot potato at the first mention of Dr. Larch’s strong opinions on the subject. Still, even those readers on the fence may be taken aback by just how much of the novel is devoted to the descriptions of, the loving imagery attributed to the tools used, and the defense of the procedures. Homer and his journey from the orphanage to the apple farm and back again definitely take a back seat to the more political elements of the novel.
Grover Gardner, while an excellent narrator, fails to enhance this mediocre story. His performance tends to be very even and even more subtle, which does nothing to overcome the slow pacing and tepid characters. The character list is long, but Mr. Gardner does little to distinguish between them. In addition, he does nothing to identify the abrupt scene shifts but barrels into each as if they were written without a pause or page break. This makes for a confusing auditory experience, as it requires too much mental effort to follow the story, keep track of each character, and be on guard for scene changes. Some of the fault lies with the story itself rather than Mr. Gardner’s performance, as the pacing of the story itself is almost glacial. Still, Mr. Gardner does little to help improve this, making the 24-hour audiobook seem longer than it really is.
The Cider House Rules is not necessarily a bad novel. It is just that it feels more like Mr. Irving’s personal soap box rather than a method by which a reader can escape into a fictional world. The story itself is too stark and too calm; a reader can easily lose track of characters, key elements of the story, and an entire scene because nothing majorly exciting happens. Homer is an enjoyable hero figure but he is not strong enough to overcome Dr. Larch’s – and Mr. Irving’s – medical diatribes. The rest of the characters are flat and uninspiring, generating little reader interest or sympathy; any that is created quickly dissipates among the tedious precision of the descriptions. Those looking for a novel that recreates the magic of Owen Meany or some of Mr. Irving’s other works will be disappointed at the torpor of The Cider House Rules.