“The first of my father’s illusions was that bears could survive the life lived by human beings, and the second was that human beings could survive a life led in hotels.”
Where to begin. You know a book has left an impression when you sit down to write about it and the only word that forms in your mind is “wow”.
If there’s one author who can make me laugh hysterically and sob uncontrollably within the course of a single chapter, it’s John Irving. If you’ve read him you’ll know he deals in the absurdity of everyday life with a stunning mastery. Just so with this grand novel that chronicles the exploits of the family Berry – their lives ruled by hotels, bears and Freud.
The plot is enthrallingly silly. Narrator John Berry is the middle-child of a rather eccentric family. His father, Win, is a hapless idealist guided by his patient and accepting mother. His older brother, Frank, dabbles in taxidermy. He grows up infatuated with weight-lifting and his older sister, the crude and desirable Franny. His younger sister, Lilly, spends her life never growing taller than a small child but becoming a larger than life presence. And then there is the youngest sibling, the unfortunately nicknamed Egg. Their family saga spans twenty odd years and takes them from New Hampshire to Vienna to Maine – all the while chasing Win Berry’s seemingly elusive desire to own a successful hotel. Preferably a hotel with a bear. Along the way, they encounter an unforgettable cast of supporting characters – from prostitutes to revolutionaries at typewriters turned terrorists – all skilfully written.
And, of course, it wouldn’t be a true John Irving novel if he didn’t temper his fantastical narrative with a good dose of tragedy, and the family Berry is persistently taunted by fate. From strange sexual couplings and some truly macabre occurrences, there are few sensitive themes not touched on throughout the book. The Berry siblings’ coming of age is much more dark comedy than fairy-tale ending. But then, what is stranger, more bizarre, than this thing called life.
In the words of John Berry:
“So we dream on. Thus we invent our lives. We give ourselves a sainted mother, we make our father a hero; and someone’s older brother, and someone’s older sister – they become our heroes, too. We invent what we love, and what we fear. There is always a brave, lost brother – and a little lost sister, too. We dream on and on; the best hotel, the perfect family, the resort life. And our dreams escape us almost as vividly as we can imagine them.”
Recommended if you’re aching for something peculiar and heartbreaking.