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Monday, December 18, 2006

Until I Find You

Until I Find You: A Novel by John Irving

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful:

September 11, 2005

In sports, especially boxing, there are always those formerly great athletes who stick around too long for one last season or one last fight and in the process tarnish their legacy by revealing themselves to be merely ordinary. Starting with his last book, "The Fourth Hand" and continuing with "Until I Find You", John Irving is tarnishing his reputation as a great author of books like "The World According to Garp", "The Cider House Rules", and "A Prayer for Owen Meany." For a huge fan of Irving's older work like myself, "Until I Find You" is without a doubt the author's most disappointing effort.

The book gets off to a pretty good start with 4-year-old Jack traveling to Scandinavia with Alice, his mother, supposedly in search of his womanizing father William. This turns out to be untrue for the most part. The pace at this point is good as Irving takes the reader to Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki, and Amsterdam (which should be familiar to Irving readers from "A Widow for One Year") where we meet lots of interesting tattoo artists, organists, choirgirls, and the obligatory prostitutes. By the time Jack and Alice board the ship for Canada, there could be an interesting story about the relationship between Jack and his parents.

But then it takes Irving about 600 pages to really get back to this story. For those 600 pages we have a lot of filler and the obligatory private schools and wrestling lessons that have become Irving staples. In the case of his earlier works, they add to the story, but in "Until I Find You", it does little more than fill the reader in on each year of Jack's life.

The most controversial aspect of the book, the sexual abuse of Jack at the hands of a Portuguese nanny and to a lesser extent the sister of his mother's girlfriend, serves no real purpose in relation to the overall story. It's almost as if it came from another novel and somehow got mixed in. There was so much talk about Jack's "little guy" at this point in the book I seriously thought of not finishing. I found the almost constant discussion of 9-year-old Jack's "little guy" to be more disturbing than just about all the gore and debauchery in "American Psycho", the book I read before this. Not just because it was talking about child abuse, but because it didn't seem to ADD anything to the story. What did this have to do with Jack's missing father or mother? Granted if he had a mother and father looking after him maybe he wouldn't have been abused, but it didn't really help move the story forward.

Mixed in with the child abuse during Jack's elementary school years at St. Hilda's mostly girl's school are several ham-handed attempts to create humorous situations. The writing here is so self-conscious and obvious that I found myself groaning. The worst refers to one teacher who was born in a hurricane and Irving several times thinks it's funny to contrast this to her calm demeanor. The first time was mildly amusing, but he mentions this over and over again until it's just not funny.

After the child abuse, and mandatory New England prep schools--Exeter again!--and wrestling, Jack goes to Hollywood and even wins John Irving's Oscar for Best Screen Adaptation in 2000. None of this matters. Again, it's just a lot of filler. John Irving does not seem the logical choice to play an actor. Make no mistake about it, Jack Burns is a thinly-veiled John Irving. My personal theory is so much of the filler happens to Jack Burns because it happened to John Irving.

Therein lies the problem for me as a reader. In his own books--"The World According to Garp" and "A Widow for One Year"--Irving decries autobiographical writing and writing for therapy. Yet with "Until I Find You" he manages to do both. There can be nothing more disappointing when a great author BECOMES everything he's claimed to despise.

After the book plods along through the wilderness of Jack's life for 600 pages, it finally gets back to the point when Jack goes back to Europe and realizes that his mom was the bad guy, turning him against his father for all those years. Then Jack meets his long-lost sister and finally meets his father. Unfortunately, at that point the book ends, just when it was getting interesting.

I would have liked to see a lot more of Jack with his sister and father, to see if they could really make things work and become some kind of family unit. This might have been possible if there hadn't been so much filler taken from Irving's life. And so where the formerly great author fails is by delivering his autobiographical therapy session and not a compelling and well-thought-out novel.

After the subpar "The Fourth Hand" and even lesser effort of "Until I Find You", there is little doubt to me that Irving's best work is behind him. As a great fan and admirer of his work as an author, I only hope he realizes that he's stayed in the game for one fight too long. Time to hang 'em up.

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