Book Review: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

Preview…Often times we create high expectations for the books we read, based on good reviews, a friend’s recommendation or a fondness for previous works by the same author. John Irving’s “The Cider House Rules” is one of my favorite novels, so naturally I entered into “A Prayer for Owen Meany” with sky-high expectations. I hoped that it would be near as good as its predecessor and to my delight it was even better!

A Prayer for Owen Meany” is a powerful and emotionally touching novel. We follow the unimpressive narrator, Johnny Wheelwright, as he recalls growing up with his childhood best friend, Owen. Owen is a rather odd character. He’s unnaturally small and pasty. He’s got a voice that is stuck in a permanent scream and causes some to believe he is the devil incarnate. But Owen is not the devil’s own. It was Owen who made his best friend believe in God and his miracles—even though this included the accidental murder of Johnny’s mother in the process.

At a blasé little league game, the coach is just looking to end the monotony. He puts lackluster Owen to bat and by some freak accident he makes a forceful connection with the ball. It zings over to the sideline, where Johnny’s mother is chatting up a friend, and *thwack* that’s the end of that.

Through an unspoken understanding the friends make it past this horrifying event and continue on together until Johnny has made it to graduate school and Owen has voluntarily enlisted in the wartime military. Looking back on his days with Owen as an unpatriotic, asexual Canadian, Johnny recounts their journey, which includes an armadillo, a dressmaker’s dummy, a longstanding mystery as to who Johnny’s father is, the advent of television, two unforgettable Christmas plays and an amputation.

Owen has a vision of his death date at just 11 years old. It is later coupled with a recurrent dream detailing his last minutes on Earth. When everything comes together in the end of the story, you will mourn for the loss of a great soul, even if he only ever existed in the fictional world. I am not ashamed to admit that this is one of the few books that has moved me to tears. I wept for the tragically beautiful ending—after all, that’s the very best kind.

You may like this book if…you like meeting characters who seem like they are living, breathing entities; you enjoy stories where every single detail works together in the end leaving you in awe; you like nontraditional heroes; you like the time period of the 1950’s through 1980’s; you like books that span many years; you are moved by faith or would like to be; you believe in destiny; you want to laugh throughout the story and then sob your eyes out when it’s over.

You may not like this book if…you have a hard time believing in miracles or that the universe all comes together to obtain a single goal; you’ve not enjoyed other books by the same author; you are looking for a quick and easy read; you want your narrator to be endearing and relatable.

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  1. Not only do I love this book, but your review’s “may like” and “may not like” hit the nail on the head. I’ve had trouble explaining to people just why this novel is so great (in my all time top ten) and would have an even harder time explaining why Irving’s other work wouldn’t even compete despite the fact that his novels have such striking similarities. This book is so tightly constructed and effective. Thanks for reminding me about it (might be time to re-read it), and I’ll be coming back here for more reviews!

    • Always good to meet another Irving-phile. What else do you enjoy reading?

      Did you cry at the ending of this book too? I cried because of how perfectly it all came together and because it was so hard to leave behind this very special world :-)

  2. This is in my tp five favorite books-probably in the top three-and your review was spot on! I was nervous when you were concerned that it would not live up to your expectations after reading The Cider House Rules, but was silently cheering when you said it was even better. (I read Owen Meaney first, and as much as I have come to love John Irving, nothing has ever compared, but Cider House was a close second) I have recommended this book to many people and they either love it or hate it-usually because they can’t imagine what Owen’s voice sounds like, and the capital letters throw them off. I think that is part of the books unique style and The capitals reminded me that he spoke differently, even when I forgot to ‘hear’ his voice correctly in my head! I have read it a number of times and find myself laughing out loud EVERY TIME during the Christmas pageant scene! Thankfully, Owen’s voice makes it impossible for anyone to ruin the integrity of the book by making it into a movie (Simon Birch was supposedly based on it, but really only the baseball game part). I could go on and on (and I have) about Owen Meaney, but I’ll just stop and thank you for writing such an excellent review of one of my all time favorites! :)

    • Hi, Elaine. You’re absolutely right. This is my all-time favorite book, #1. It roused more emotion from me than anything I’ve ever read. Like you, I laughed, I cried–and all of this is rather unusual in the reading medium. I recommend it to many others as well. My book club read it, and they also LOVED it 😀


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