First published in 1985, The Cider House Rules is John Irving's sixth novel. Set in rural Maine in the first half of this century, it tells the story of Dr. Wilbur Larch--saint and obstetrician, founder and director of the orphanage in the town of St. Cloud's, ether addict and abortionist. It is also the story of Dr. Larch's favorite orphan, Homer Wells, who is never adopted.
Homer Wells is an orphan, born at St. Cloud's, who repeatedly proves that he belongs there. The Dr. and nurse of the orphanage keep trying to find him a new home but Homer always finds a way back until they just quit trying. Dr. Larch decides then that Homer would make a good doctor and sets about training a teenage Homer in the ways of the orphanage. Mainly, ensuring each woman who comes gets an "orphan or an abortion". The more Homer sees of the daily operations of St. Cloud's the more disillusioned with becoming a doctor he becomes. When a young couple comes to St. Cloud's and offers a means of escape, Homer readily takes it.
Over the next several years both Homer and Dr. Larch struggle with Homer's absence. Homer struggles to find his place in this new world while the Dr. struggles with his absence. Even at a distance the two fall into a father-son type relationship with the 'son' wanting to go his own way and the 'father' wanting him to follow in his footsteps.
I really enjoyed the book. I was afraid, going in, that the main theme of abortion and a woman's right to choose would be hard to read 500+ pages over. However, while abortion may be prevalent in the book, I didn't feel that the issues was beat over your head. By the middle, it's just an underlying theme while the characters interactions and personal growth take center stage. Each character is clearly developed and you get a good sense of each one. I could easily picture each and every person mentioned and their personality is clearly defined. When someone talks you don't even need a clarifying "Homer said" or anything like that because their 'voice' is so easily distinguishable.
Overall, it was a compelling story, an interesting read and I would recommend it. A word of caution though. I am not a big fan of abortions, though I try not to judge anyone who may choose to get one for their own reasons, and the subject matter didn't really bother me. However, if you have very strong feelings on the matter, this book may be a bit harder for you to read. You have been warned.
The author does a wonderful job of showing how easy it is to create meaningless rules for others when you're on the outside looking in, but he also shows how we need rules and often create our own to get through life. These are not easy issues being addressed, but Irving rises to the challenge beautifully.
When he becomes associated with St. Cloud's Orphanage in Maine, his reputation spreads and women wanting abortions or just to give birth and leave their children to be adopted, come to St. Cloud's.
Homer Wells is born at that facility. He's loved by the entire staff for his sweet disposition and helpfulness.
He is placed into a number of adoptions but none of them take. Each time, he returns to St. Cloud's, the place where he really considers that he belongs. He remains there as he grows up and becomes Dr. Leach's assistant.
This detailed story, tells of life in Maine in the early 20th century. It tells of the life of the people after the mills closed, the water pollution, and the sad way of life of so many of the poor people dwelling there.
One of the author's themes is for the protagonist to give back to society and they seem to be congradulated for it. However, this novel also describes the painful moments such as, the adoptions that are done for the wrong reasons. We also see the continuous stream of women taking the train to the orphanage to seek an abortion. There is never counseling for these women or an attempt to give them an alternative to taking the life of the child within them.
Where Dr. Leach is viewed as a kindly, angelic man, he really is taking lives of the children in their mother's wombs and nothing is said of that or that he is an ether addict. He became addicted to ether as a result of the gonorrhea he contracted after his father took him to a prostitute as a right of passage into adulthood.
The story is a classic. Homer Wells is one of the most empathatic character is literature and will be remembered rondly, long after the book is finished.
Those who loved the movie can enjoy this book separatly. The sub-plots are quite different from the movie and each has it's own ambiance.
One word on the movie. It's pretty true to the book, but my suggestion would be to both read the book and see the movie. They each add layers, and are both well done. Not at all like Hotel New Hampshire, one of Mr. Irving's good books, but a really very awful movie. Perhaps this is because Cider House is of more moderate length, with fewer characters, and therefore ultimately something that could reasonably be made into a film. But of the Irving books, World According to Garp, Hotel New Hampshire, and Cider House are at the top, while the Cider House movie is probably the best to date.
The Take-Away: I never would have picked-up this title if it hadn't been for my book club. The blurb on the inside of the front cover really didn't prepare me for what it the story was truly about - a doctor performing illegal abortions and the orphan he picks to continue his work.
The book was very frank on sex and abortion in the early 1900 (1920s to 1960s). In fact, it was so frank that I questioned if it was accurate, instead of a modern view of what life was actually life. Irving added notes to the back of the book also, with supplemental antedotes that were mostly relayed by his grandfather. Some of the story seemed overplayed, especially as I'm used to reading this from writers of the time. Were they censored? (Most likely, I realize, but were private discussion as frank as Irving leads us to believe.)
In my mind, the openness is because of the services performed, and not a realistic portrayal of the what happened in most conversations.
However, Irving has a wide variety of story lines, perspectives and character growth, that touching on all of them would make this an essay instead of a review. So I'm stopping there.
Recommendation: An interesting look at the life of two men involved deeply in the orphanage. It also is a great coming of age story for each of them.