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Book Review: A Son of the Circus by John Irving (2/5)

7 Aug

This book should have been perfect for me. It’s by John Irving and it’s about circuses, two things I love. Unfortunately, in Irving fashion, the book’s separate story lines didn’t start intersecting until halfway through (300 pages in for this book) and the Circus in the title was not a big focus of the book. Combine those with me taking a hiatus from reading it half way through, and this book was kind of disappointing to me.

Cover image via Goodreads

A Son of the Circus by John Irving

Other books by John Irving reviewed on this blog:

In One Person (4/5)

Summary from Goodreads:

Born a Parsi in Bombay, sent to university and medical school in Vienna, Dr. Farrokh Daruwalla is a 59-year-old orthopedic surgeon and a Canadian citizen who lives in Toronto. Periodically, the doctor returns to Bombay, where most of his patients are crippled children.

Once, 20 years ago, Dr. Daruwalla was the examining physician of two murder victims in Goa. Now, 20 years later, he will be reacquainted with the murderer.

I think there were some basic problems with this book that kept me from enjoying it. The first is how long it is. At 600+ pages, this wasn’t a quick read. The entire first half of the book is told in flash backs that Farrokh goes through during one day. The timeline will progress thirty minutes before we’re thrust back 30 years to John D’s childhood or the history of the Duckworth Club or something else that seems inconsequential to the plot, which is dragging along. In the second half of the book, some of these things start to come full circle, but many of them are never brought back up. Farrokh’s relationship with the Catholic Church is mentioned several times, but there’s no definitive conclusion. The central plot, which really begins in the last quarter of the book, is compelling and I thought Rahul was a great character. I wish side plots, even the circus involved one, had been left out. Irving tried to do far too much with this book and I think it failed as a result.

John Irving characters are hard to believe and there were several in this novel I didn’t believe. Nancy was a contradiction, both too nervous to do anything and very bold in how she attracted her husband. John D lacked a personality completely as the man never seemed to stop acting. I struggled to connect with any characters; perhaps Police Inspector Patel and Julia were the most understandable to me. Veronica Rose was hard to like (I doubt anyone reading this does) to the point where I didn’t believe her. This is usually my chief complaint about Irving novels, but I still read them anyway.

Farrokh was a good narrator for this story. He had a strong connection with all the main players: Rahul, John D, Martin Mills, and Vinod. Without switching narrators, we were given the story from several angles. I stand by my earlier complaint that there were too many plot lines, though. There could have easily been less about Nancy, Martin Mills, and even Inspector Dhar. Farrokh seemed to be a reasonable person, though, and recognized when there was something ridiculous going on in his life and react to it the way I would. I appreciated this with all of the radical events.

Police Inspector Patel seemed one of the most relatable characters in the story. He realized how ridiculous the people around him were and how his life was made more complicated by people’s insistence on following traditions and inability to do basic things. His constant frustration with his clerical staff was something I could appreciate. His love for Nancy was really admirable, too. Overall, I think he was the most likable character in the story.

John Irving
Image via the author’s website

My favorite plotline was Rahul. They mystery, murder, and the slow reveal of Rahul’s personality was fun to read and follow. The twists were good and it had a solid ending to it. I still wish this had been the only major plotline.

My least favorite plot line was John D and Martin Mills. I didn’t see how it contributed to the story at all. Martin was a caricature of a Jesuit and as a Catholic, I found most of the priests in this book a bit insulting. The story of the twins, them meeting, and all Martin’s shenanigans were completely pointless in the book and even the end of the twins’ stories didn’t contribute much to the book. I really wish this had been left completely out.

I struggled to find a continuous theme in this book. At first, I thought it would be Farrokh reflecting on his past mistakes but, half way through, the flashbacks stopped. Then I thought it would be about catching Rahul, but the two orphans were a big part of the plot. I was really confused what all of this had to do with each other besides Farrokh being involved in it all. His screenplays seemed to have something to do with it. He wanted to mature as a writer, to write about something that ‘mattered’ and wasn’t meant to upset people. Farrokh was growing into someone who was considerate and wanted to say something ‘real.’ To be honest, that’s all I got out of this one.

Writer’s Takeaway: I think this could easily have been split into multiple books. Each would have been more impactful (and easier to fit in my carry-on luggage) than all of these plotlines combined into one. It’s important to have a book focus. While subplots can be fun and make the story more interesting, too many are distracting and need to be cut. This could have done with a lot of cutting.

Too much going on to really enjoy this one. Two out of Five Stars. As an Irving fan, this makes me sad. I ended up selling this book at a used book store for credit. I’ll post more about that tomorrow.

Until next time, write on.

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A Son of the Circus by John Irving | Diddy’s Diary