Book review: The World According to Garp by John Irving

Posted April 2, 2011 by Heather in Book Reviews / 5 Comments

Book review: The World According to Garp by John IrvingThe World According to Garp by John Irving
Published by Dutton on April 1978
Genres: Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 437
Source: my shelves

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Let me start by saying that The World According to Garp–first published in 1978 and the book for which John Irving won a National Book Award in 1980–now holds a spot on my list of favorite books, and Irving is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors.  He is an incredible storyteller; in my opinion, one of the best.  Speaking through Garp, Irving says, “…a writer’s job is to imagine everything so personally that the fiction is as vivid as our personal memories.”  Irving has definitely accomplished that with The World According to Garp.  The first half of this book made me laugh out loud numerous times (sometimes for very inappropriate reasons), while the second half of the book had me in tears or gasping in sad disbelief numerous times.  I went from one extreme to the other on the spectrum of feelings—and experienced every emotion in between—all within 437 pages.  Now that’s a sign of good storytelling.

The World According to Garp is a novel full of stories, but the central plot revolves around Jenny Fields (a nurse) and her son, T.S. Garp (a writer).  The story begins in 1942 when Jenny is 22 years old, before she has given birth to Garp and when she’s just a young nurse taking care of soldiers injured in World War II.  From the inside flap:

The main story in The World According to Garp […] is of a man with a famous mother, a man who reaches toward fame himself.  Jenny Fields is the black sheep daughter of an aristocratic New England family; she becomes, almost by accident, a feminist leader ahead of her time.  Her son, T.S. Garp (named for a father he never saw), has high ambitions for his artistic career, but he has an even higher, obsessive devotion to his wife and children.  Surrounding Garp and Jenny are a wide assortment of people:  schoolteachers and whores, wrestlers and radicals, editors and assassins, transsexuals and rapists, and husbands and wives.  It is John Irving’s special gift that all his characters, even the least lovable among them, are portrayed not just vividly but affectionately.

This is one sensational story.

Ever since finishing it, I have been trying to think of a way to review this book and do the greatness of it justice.  It really does defy that brief synopsis.  If I had to describe it in one sentence, I would say this:  The World According to Garp is a book of extremes.  There is extreme hilarity and lunacy, extreme sadness, extreme death, extreme anger, extreme feminism, extreme sex and extreme love.  There are extreme characters–sometimes with extreme imaginations–who find themselves (or put themselves) in extreme situations.  At the same time, the extremeness of the book is not of the wholly unbelievable type.  It’s just the kind of stuff that—when we see it or hear about it—makes us respond with, “Holy crap!” or quite probably something less G-rated.

I cannot discuss my favorite characters or my favorite parts of the book in great detail without giving half the story away, so I’ve picked out some of my favorite quotes instead, just to give you an idea of what you’ll find between the covers of The World According to Garp:

“My mother,” Garp wrote, “went through her life on the lookout for purse-snatchers and snatch-snatchers.”

Only two facts impressed Garp:  that his mother actually believed she could write a book and that the most meaningful relationship in his present life was with a whore.  These facts contributed greatly to the young man’s developing sense of humor.

“In this dirty-minded world,” Jenny wrote, “you are either somebody’s wife or somebody’s whore—or fast on your way to becoming one or the other.”

Maybe television causes cancer, Garp thinks; but his real irritation is a writer’s irritation:  he knows that wherever the TV glows, there sits someone who isn’t reading.

Horace Walpole once said that the world is comic to those who think and tragic to those who feel.  I hope you’ll agree with me that Horace Walpole somewhat simplifies the world by saying this.  Surely both of us think and feel; in regard to what’s comic and what’s tragic, Mrs. Poole, the world is all mixed up.  For this reason I have never understood why “serious” and “funny” are thought to be opposites.  It is simply a truthful contradiction to me that people’s problems are often funny and that the people are often and nonetheless sad.  I take people very seriously.  People are all I take seriously, in fact.  Therefore, I have nothing but sympathy for how people behave—and nothing but laughter to console them with.  Laughter is my religion, Mrs. Poole.  In the manner of most religions, I admit that my laughter is pretty desperate.

It was not one of Garp’s better points:  tolerance of the intolerant.  Crazy people made him crazy.  It was as if he personally resented them giving in to madness—in part, because he so frequently labored to behave sanely.  When some people gave up the labor of sanity, or failed at it, Garp suspected them of not trying hard enough.

“A novelist is a doctor who sees only terminal cases,” Garp said.

But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.

I loved The World According to Garp and it’s definitely a book that I will be reading again in the future.  In fact, I’m sure that I’ll find something else to love about it with every subsequent read.  I would not recommend this book for young readers—there are too many situations in it that are not meant for young minds to think about—but I would highly recommend it to adults who love a good story and appreciate good literary fiction.  The World According to Garp is not always an easy read emotionally, but Irving’s wonderful prose and imagination are worth every laugh, every tear and every ounce of anger or frustration you might find yourself giving in to while reading this fantastic book.


(You can learn more about John Irving by visiting his official website.)