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Monday, December 4, 2006

The Cider House Rules

The Cider House Rules
by John Irving
4/5 stars

The first time I read "The Cider House Rules" it changed my life in more ways than one. For one thing up to that point I had been reading and writing primarily sci-fi and had come to sort of a loose end there and "The Cider House Rules" fulfilled my need for something MORE. (No offense to sci-fi books because many of them are great and socially relevant, but I was craving something more real, I guess you could say.) At the time I was also pro-life without ever really considering it probably because I went to a Lutheran school until junior high. And so "The Cider House Rules" is the book that I credit for changing my life as a writer and as a human being. For that reason it remains my favorite of Mr. Irving's eleven novels.

And from a critical standpoint, where I said Mr. Irving played it safe with his previous "Hotel New Hampshire" by essentially reconstituting the formula from his breakthrough "The World According to Garp," with "The Cider House Rules" Mr. Irving finally gets outside his own experiences. There are no trips to Vienna, only one mention of a prostitute, no bears, and no wrestling or stand-ins for any of those Irving staples.

Instead, this story focuses on a staple of Mr. Irving's literary idol Charles Dickens--an orphanage. The orphanage is located not in grimy London but an abandoned logging town in Maine called St. Cloud's. Just as Dickens's Gilded Age was winding down, a young doctor named Wilbur Larch came to St. Cloud's looking to be a hero, but instead wound up doing "the Lord's work" as he calls it by delivering babies to those who want to create an orphan or giving abortions to women who do not. At the time abortion was illegal in Maine and the rest of the United States, so Larch performs these in relative secrecy.

Along comes an orphan named Homer Wells who Larch discovers after four failed attempts is unsuitable for any home except St. Cloud's. Homer becomes Dr. Larch's unwilling trainee in delivering babies and performing abortions, though he disapproves of the latter. It seems that Homer will be at St. Cloud's forever, until a young golden couple from the town of Heart's Rock up the coast show up. They are Wally Worthington and Candy Kendall, Wally the son of an apple grower and Candy the daughter of a lobsterman/mechanic. Their seemingly perfect courtship goes awry when Candy becomes pregnant, so they decide to get an abortion.

In perhaps the most contrived moment of the book--as contrived as the accidents befalling the Garp and Berry families--Homer decides to accompany Wally and Candy back to Heart's Rock to exchange medicine for apples. The main reason is that Homer is in love with Candy and she falls in love with him after Wally goes off to bomb the Japanese over Burma in WWII.

From there is a love triangle that lasts for fifteen years until Homer finally has to make a decision about where he belongs and whose rules he's going to follow.

The title of the book comes from a list of rules put up by the white managers of the orchard in the cider house to be read by the black migrant workers. The only problem is that the migrant workers can't read the rules, though every year the owners keep putting them up in the hope that the migrants will follow the rules. This kind of misunderstanding between white/black, rich/poor cultures has been going on since the dawn of time and continues to this day. But also the cider house rules serve as a symbol of the rules society imposes and that we impose on ourselves. As the head of the migrant workers--Mr. Rose, who is a virtuoso knife-fighter--says, "We make our own rules."

This applies to Larch and his abortions as well as the love triangle between Homer/Candy/Wally. For Larch, the abortions are necessary because he first-hand witnessed the cost of not doing them and the horrible things desperate women will do to themselves or have done to them to abort a fetus. And so even if society's rules dictate that abortions are wrong, Larch's rules compel him to perform them anyway. As for Homer, he has to define his set of rules concerning love and abortion.

I'm sure a lot of people don't like this book or refuse to read it because of the abortion. As I said in the beginning I was pro-life when I began reading, but over the course of the book I began to understand as Larch did that abortion is a necessary evil in a real world where people do not always wait until they're ready to have a baby or where they aren't given a choice in if they want to have a baby at all. By making abortion illegal what you're doing is turning a blind eye to reality and saying essentially "Let them eat cake" to the women who find themselves in a bad situation--sometimes not of their own doing. If you are staunchly pro-life then perhaps some of Mr. Irving's descriptions of women's attempts to abort a fetus themselves will help change your mind as it did mine.

As much as I enjoyed this book--and I've read it a half-dozen times since 2002--there are a few things that always bug me. I hate how Irving uses 19__ for the dates, usually something like "Homer was born in 192_" I'm sure there was a good reason for it, perhaps to demonstrate how at St. Cloud's time really doesn't have much meaning, but after a while it gets to be grating. I mentioned above that I thought Homer going to Heart's Rock was really contrived, a problem the author failed to fix in the movie version as well. There's also the fifteen-year jump near the end that always annoys me. That this love triangle could persist for fifteen years seems very unlikely.

That is a problem the author solved in his Oscar-winning screenplay, which took many revisions and several directors to get into production--the story is recounted in the author's nonfiction book "My Movie Business" which I haven't read. Though Roger Ebert would heartily disagree, I liked the movie version as much as the novel and in some ways better as it streamlined the book without losing the main points. (In particular besides losing the 15-year jump the disappearance of the Melony character who torments Homer throughout his early life was not much of a loss.) Though the movie suffers a couple of times in perhaps trying to be too cute with the orphans like Fuzzy.

The movie I thought was almost perfectly cast. Michael Caine won a supporting actor Oscar for his role as Larch and it's hard not to read the book without seeing and hearing him. Tobey Maguire was also perfect for the repressed, naive Homer Wells. And Charlize Theron makes a wonderful Candy Kendall, the beautiful but still mostly normal girl idolized by Homer and Wally. Paul Rudd doesn't necessarily make for a good Wally who in the book is supposed to be a big, blond WASP-y guy. Delroy Lindo makes for a very believable and scary Mr. Rose.

The movie doesn't back away from the abortion issue or water it down to make things more Hollywood. So for that reason the movie is an excellent companion to the book and better if you don't have time to read 550 pages.

While others will argue that "Garp" or "Owen Meany" are better, I'll still always remember when I first picked up "The Cider House Rules" and how it impacted my life. There aren't many books I can say that about.

That is all.

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