What I love about John Irving’s novels is how they chronicle ordinary people living ordinary lives, but somehow manage to come off as great, sweeping epics. I don’t know how he does it – The Cider House Rules contains no epic journeys, no great battles, no romances for the ages, and no heroes. It’s an ordinary story, but Irving’s writing makes it seem just as incredible and important as The Odyssey.
Maybe it’s the time span that makes it seem like an epic. The book covers a period of over fifty years, and centers on two characters. They are Dr. Wilbur Larch the director of St. Cloud’s orphanage, where he also performs illegal abortions; and Homer Wells, the orphan who is never adopted. As Homer grows up, Dr. Larch teaches him to deliver babies and perform abortions, planning to make Homer his successor. Instead, Homer leaves the orphanage and goes to live and work on an apple farm.
A lot happens. Most of it isn’t very happy, some is disgusting, and some of it is beautiful. Since the issue of abortion is a big part of the story, there’s a lot of time devoted to arguing each side of the debate. Although Irving is pretty plainly pro-choice, there’s ample evidence within the book to support a pro-life stance as well. For instance, the moment when Homer Wells decides that he won’t perform abortions:
“In eight weeks, though still not quick, the fetus has a nose and a mouth; it has an expression, thought Homer Wells. And with this discovery – that a fetus, as early as eight weeks, has an expression – Homer Wells felt in the presence of what others call a soul.
…You can call it a fetus, or an embryo, or the products of conception, thought Homer Wells, but whatever you call it, it’s alive. And whatever you do to it, Homer thought – and whatever you call what you do – you’re killing it.”
I find it very interesting that Homer Wells reaches his decision not to perform abortions by looking at a fetus. Dr. Larch, on the other hand, decides to perform abortions by looking at a mother. At the beginning of Larch’s medical career a young girl dies because he won’t perform an abortion on her; later on, he agrees to do the procedure on another underage girl and saves her.
“By the time he got back to Portland, he had worked the matter out. He was an obstetrician; he delivered babies into the world. His colleagues called it ‘the Lord’s work.’ And he was an abortionist; he delivered mothers, too. His colleagues called this ‘the Devil’s work,’ but it was all the Lord’s work to Wilbur Larch. …He could quite comfortably abstain from having sex for the rest of his life, but how could he ever condemn another person for having sex? He would remember, too, what he hadn’t done for Mrs. Eames’s daughter, and what that had cost.
He would deliver babies. He would deliver mothers, too.”
It’s heavy stuff. There’s also a lot of really detailed, anatomical descriptions of the process of delivery and abortion, and the squeamish should be forewarned that if they can’t handle the following passage, they should give this book a pass:
“‘I have made this observation about the wall of the uterus,’ Dr. Larch told the ghostly young man. ‘It is a good, hard, muscular wall, and when you’ve scraped it clean, it responds with a gritty sound. That’s how you know when you’ve got all of it – all the products of conception. You just listen for the gritty sound.’ He scraped some more. ‘Can you hear it?'”
On a lighter note, the book also contains a frankly delightful selection of dirty limericks, and to end this downer review on a funny note, I’ll share one. Send the kids to bed and enjoy, folks:
“Oh pity the Duchess of Kent!
Her cunt is so dreadfully bent,
The poor wench doth stammer,
‘I need a sledgehammer
To pound a man into my vent.'”
Aw yeah. Keepin’ it classy.
Verdict: five out of five stars