John Irving: Setting Free the Bears

I started reading this book whilst on shift at a gallery (we’re allowed to read – I wasn’t ‘sticking it to the man’ in any way).

My shift partner, who also had a book, looked over at mine as I looked over at hers, and we had a conversation about Irving that went something like this:

HER: Are you enjoying it?

ME: I just started it, not sure yet.

HER: I’ve actually read all of his stuff; went through a bit of a phase. After I finished them I decided I really didn’t like him as a writer. Now they prop up my table legs because I hate them so much.

ME: Oh. Yeah, I’ve read Garp and Owen Meany, and I guess I preferred Garp to Owen, and this one isn’t shaping up so well…

So, in short, my confidence was rocked even before I’d got past the first few chapters. It is true though, I wasn’t enjoying it as much as the others I had read. The World According To Garp is up there with my favourite books, whereas Setting Free The Bears seemed to be shaping up like a juvenile romp for boys. I was confused.

My confusion didn’t abate through the whole experience of reading this novel. It’s so much less refined, so much less interesting than Garp. The characters are less developed and as a result the whole thing is less compelling. The central female character is so two-dimensional and fleshless as to be almost transparent. The central epistolary section/framed narrative is interesting for its odd, fragmented, tunnel-vision historicism, which is very typical of Irving, but even this feels somehow inauthentic as his resolutely American voice intrudes upon the European content. It just doesn’t convince. 

What else is there to say? I feel deflated and disappointed. I’m not going to let it put me off other Irving novels, but I think I’m going to give it a bit of time before I try The Cider House Rules or The Fourth Hand, which are two others I’ve got lined up.


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