Picks and Pans Review: The Cider House Rules

updated 06/24/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/24/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by John Irving

After the exhilarating The World According to Garp (1978) and the jumbled, less successful Hotel New Hampshire (1981), Irving is back with a new novel that is a big, tender, sentimental and satisfying mess. It's about abortion (more than anyone could ever want to know about abortion), the apple-growing business, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Jane Eyre and all kinds of rules. The locale is Maine, and much of the action takes place in an orphanage where a doctor delivers unwanted babies and performs abortions on demand. He also finds himself in charge of Homer Wells, an orphan who refuses to stay adopted. The villain—most of the characters are extraordinarily pure and good—is a big, mean girl named Melony who loves the doctor with a passion that is both ominous and comic. Irving once told an interviewer that every good novel ought to be entitled Great Expectations, and that is the story read aloud to the orphans every night before the doctor, an ether addict, yells out the dorm window, "Goodnight! Goodnight, you Princes of Maine, you Kings of New England." Homer leaves the orphanage for a summer at an apple orchard where he falls in love with a beautiful girl—who already loves a handsome, absolutely perfect young man. World War II comes along and Homer, thanks to the doctor's fanciful records, is exempt. Will Homer eventually return to the orphanage? What will the violent Melony do if she finds Homer? That's the only suspense in the long, episodic story. The other flaw is that Irving is almost always too detailed. The reader is rarely allowed to imagine. Among several themes, perhaps the most important is about how we get our rules for living. Irving gives us a rich supply of answers to this question; in that area the patient reader will find ample rewards. (Morrow, $18.95)

From Our Partners