1985 – “The Cider House Rules” by John Irving

The Cider House Rules by John Irving is set in rural Maine in and after WW2. It’s a slow read but one where you can enjoy the author’s writing and wit as you progress through the life of the book’s protagonist Homer Wells. Homer is an orphan who is brought up in the orphanage run by Doctor Wilbur Larch. Dr Larch delivers women of their unwanted babies and then finds homes for them. Homer is an orphan who never finds his home and eventually Larch realises that he will stay at the orphanage so he begins to teach him his trade.

St Cloud’s orphanage also performs abortions for women who don’t wish to bear their babies and have them adopted. Dr Larch starts to perform these procedures after an incident with a prostitute who he could have helped but who dies because he doesn’t want to terminate her pregnancy. Homer realises that he doesn’t want to perform abortions and takes the opportunity to leave the orphanage with a young couple who are connected with the apple growing and pressing industry. He becomes an apple farmer and develops a strange relationship with his best friend’s wife.

This summary gives only the basic plot details. This book is full of characters both at St Cloud’s and at the apple farm. Dr Larch wants Homer to come home and works to make that happen. The trustees of the orphanage want Dr Larch to retire. The orphans are adopted with varying results. Homer learns about love and belonging and friendship but also about betrayal.

I found this book quite slow at the start but as I continued to read I realised that I was immersed in the lives of the characters. No one in this book is particularly right or wrong but everyone has their own set of rules by which they live which are dependent on their background and situation. The author gives his characters full lives, even those on the periphery of the story, and each of them plays a part as the book draws to a satisfying close.

There are some quite detailed passages about abortion in this book and it is best avoided if this is a problem for you. The author is clear in his support for legalised abortion and that issue and what its absence means for women is at the heart of the story although the novel is about much more than that.

I found myself absorbed by the story and the way in which Dr Larch manoeuvres the world into a shape that he believes is right. I liked the way that the author understood that being an orphan or being adopted is something that affects someone for their whole life. I liked the emphasis on choice and how it is so often taken away from people, especially women.

This is a very readable book, although perhaps a bit long ? It raises lots of issues but encases them in a story led by its characters and about people and their relationships. At the heart of the book is love..

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