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by John Irving

Pub Date: May 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-375-50137-1
Publisher: Random House

Irving’s latest LBM (Loose Baggy Monster, that is), which portrays with seriocomic gusto the literary life and its impact on both writers and their families, is simultaneously one of his most intriguing books and one of his most self-indulgent and flaccid. Though it’s primarily the story of successful novelist Ruth Cole, the lengthy foreground, set in Sagaponack, Long Island, in 1958, is dominated by Ruth’s parents, Ted and Marion, both minor novelists (though Ted later becomes rich and famous as a writer and illustrator of children’s stories), both mourning the deaths of their two teenaged sons in an automobile accident. Ted copes by seducing younger (often married) women; Marion, by bearing a daughter (Ruth) whom she’ll later abandon following her affair with 16-year-old Eddie O’Hare, a prep-school student hired by Ted as a “writer’s assistant.” Later sections, set in 1990 and 1995, dwell melodramatically on Ruth’s painstaking progress toward romantic happiness (including a European book tour that involves her with a prostitutes’-rights organization) and the lingering effects of their adolescent affair on Eddie, who’s now a middle-aged novelist and “perpetual visiting writer-in-residence” with a lifelong passion for older women. A grieving widow, offended by one of Ruth’s novels, pronounces a curse on her. Eddie accidentally learns that the fugitive Marion is living in Canada, writing detective novels (by now the bemused reader may have anticipated the question later put to Ruth: “Is everyone you know a writer?”). The story moves sluggishly, and overindulges both Irving’s (Trying to Save Piggy Sneed, 1996, etc.) love of intricate Victorian plots and his literary likes and dislikes. On the other hand, his characters are vividly imagined, insistent presences who get under your skin and stay with you. A thoughtful, if diffuse, examination of how writers make art of their lives and loves without otherwise benefitting from the process. The borderline-tearful ending is a bit much, but at least there aren’t any bears.