While reading this book, I formed two major opinions: firstly, John Irving deserves every whit of respect he can get as a writer; secondly, The Cider House Rules is a very different book now from the book it was then, back when I read it the first time. It must have been two or three years BG (Before Goodreads). I know it's not my favourite John Irving novel, but it did resonate with me when I was younger. It still resonates with me now, although for somewhat different reasons.
On one level, The Cider House Rules is an orphan story. Homer Wells is an orphan who never manages to escape his loneliness, even when he is "adopted," falls in love, and has a child. Although far from despicable, it's difficult to love Homer as either a character or a person. He's grown up so much on his own that his mind has retreated to the point where very little of him exists on the surface. He's not so much an introvert as a hopeless introspective. The difficulty Homer encounters in relationships, both with Candy and Wally and with the infamous Melony, emphasizes his sense of isolation, turning it basically into a routine. Yet he still seems, for the most part, content, if not "deliriously happy," as Dr. Larch evaluated one prospective adoptive couple for Homer.
I first read The Cider House Rules as an orphan story. Yet on another level, it's also a very exploration of compromise, and that's how I read it this time through. While I was reading, I thought, "these characters think and act far more cynically than I remember," particularly Dr. Larch. Of course, the characters were the same--it was my interpretation and judgement of their actions that had changed with my maturation. Still a father figure and man of great respect, Dr. Larch also became a symbol of manipulation and deceit--he very skilfully manoeuvred Homer into becoming his successor at St. Cloud's, sacrificing Homer for the greater good. The reader must decide if Larch did the right thing--I would contend that Larch did the necessary thing, regardless of its justice toward Homer and its morality. Being the sap that I am, I wish it hadn't been necessary, that Homer could have been spared his fate … but Irving can't change history, and if the book had ended with, "St. Cloud's got a new doctor who refused to perform abortions, and Homer lived happily ever after" … well, that would have just sucked. This isn't a book for happy endings. It's about compromise.
Candy, Wally, and Homer all compromise when Wally returns from his overseas deployment (and subsequent jungle adventure). In what may be one of the best love triangles of 20th century literature, Candy and Homer continue to sleep together sporadically, even while wondering if Wally knows that Homer's "adopted" son, Angel, isn't really adopted. Wally never explicitly says, "I know the truth," but Irving heavily hints that this is the case. If so, then these three Maine apple farmers are a testament to making the best of what apples they can get, even the bruised ones.
The apples are a nice metaphor, conveniently free of more conventional Biblical overtones, and contribute to the pleasant style of The Cider House Rules. Although long, this is an easy book to read if you don't rush it. John Irving masterfully uses an omniscient narrator to connect the most disparate events, portraying simultaneously the related actions of two distant characters like Homer and Dr. Larch. Sometimes omniscient narrators can be overly didactic or too fond of exposition, but Irving avoids these pitfalls. The Cider House Rules is a very smooth novel, with almost all of its themes conveyed directly through characters' speeches and actions, helped out a little by quotations from Dr. Larch's A Brief History of St. Cloud's.
It helps that Irving has a cast of supporting characters the likes of which most novels only dream of having. We learn very little about Nurses Angela, Edna, and Caroline beyond what's important to the plot; likewise, parental figures like Olive Worthington and Ray Kendall exist almost exclusively to give us an external view of the main characters. The nurses are constant: Angela is always practical, Edna is always in love with Dr. Larch, and Caroline is strong and socialist. In contrast, Olive Worthington and Ray Kendall change quite a bit for secondary characters. Both struggle with the effects of Homer Wells' arrival at the Ocean View Orchards. Olive loves that Homer provides Wally with a role model, and Ray identifies with Homer's solitary nature. Yet these perceptive parents see the love triangle developing and find themselves conflicted over which man is best suited as Candy's companion. To Irving's credit, he raises questions that have no good answers, admits that they have no good answers, and goes on to portray what happens when ordinary people try to find those nonexistent answers.
When it comes to abortion, I think the book is definitely pro-abortion but that those who don't condone abortion can still love the book. Right away, The Cider House Rules sidesteps one of the most debilitating aspects of the abortion debate, the idea that it's an all-or-nothing pro-life versus pro-choice argument, with the complex reasoning of Homer Wells. Homer himself thinks that abortion is morally wrong, yet he believes it should be legal and that others should choose for themselves--he just doesn't want to perform them. Dr. Larch ultimately preys upon this philosophy to persuade Homer to become the new doctor at St. Cloud's orphanage--as long as abortions are illegal, Homer has an obligation to give them to women who need them, even if he personally believes they are wrong. As long as abortion remains illegal, Larch wisely points out, it takes away everyone's freedom of choice. And through the voices of Larch and Nurse Caroline, Irving also manages to address another often-neglected aspect of the debate--the impact of abortion on women. So much of the debate focuses on the rights of the fetus that few take the time to consider how access to abortion, or lack thereof, affects pregnant women, beyond just the right to choose "an orphan or an abortion." By presenting a wide view of the abortion debate, The Cider House Rules does justice to one of the most controversial moral issues of our time.
The Cider House Rules is a wonderful piece of fiction because it's not neat, it's not tidy, it isn't a story with a happy or sad ending. It's fiction that's true to life: messy, full of loose ends, and saturated with necessary compromise. I know that some people can find it depressing or too cynical; as I mentioned above, the ambitions of some of the characters seem less altruistic to me than they did when I was younger. At worst I would call it "morbidly realistic," and that's not a bad thing, as long as you're in the right mood for such a book. Ultimately, The Cider House Rules is going to be, along with several other John Irving novels, one of those books to which I'll return over and over throughout my life. It just has so much to offer.