Archive | 10:07 AM

Book Review: The 158-Pound Marriage by John Irving (2/5)

3 Oct

I’ve been a big Irving fan for a few years but I find that his books can be really hit-or-miss for me. Many are hits, grand slams even. But others are complete flops. Unfortunately, this is one of the later. I’d been looking forward to this print book, which I bought while on vacation with a friend years ago. I’m sorry to say it was a dissapointment.

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Cover image via Amazon

The 158-Pound Marriage by John Irving

Other books by Irving reviewed on this blog:

A Widow for One Year (and Movie Review)
In One Person (and Book Club Reflection)
A Son of the Circus

Summary from Amazon:

The darker vision and sexual ambiguities of this sensual, ironic tale about a ménage a quatre in a New England university town foreshadow those of The World According to Garp; but this very trim and precise novel is a marked departure from the author’s generally robust, boisterous style. Though Mr. Irving’s cool eye spares none of his foursome, he writes with genuine compassion for the sexual tests and illusions they perpetrate on each other; but the sexual intrigue between them demonstrates how even the kind can be ungenerous, and even the well-intentioned, destructive.

There were parts of this book that just really bothered me. The way Irving talks about infidelity, like it’s such a commonplace thing, really bothered me. There was a scene where Utch named the narrators affairs, listing them off like a grocery list. It really bothered me how little it concerned her and how she didn’t ask him to stop. I know this is a difference in how I view a marriage and how she and her partner did, but it was hard for me to wrap my head around. I also found the timeline of the book to be very confusing. We start with the backstories of the three named characters, but it’s interspersed with things they’ve learned about each other during their relationship. We never get anything about how the relationship starts, either. Some of that comes later, but not much. It left me feeling really confused for a lot of the book, like I never got my feet under me.

Edith seemed like the most grounded and credible character to me. She had goals with her writing that I could understand and her ideas about relationships aligned with mine better than others. Utch was the hardest for me to understand. It’s hard to know how much of that was a cultural difference between myself and someone who’s upbringing was so starkly different and how much was attitude. She and the narrator seemed so strange to me that I almost preferred Edit and Severin even when they were made to seem like the villains.

Though she seemed a little unreal to me, I liked Utch best as a character. She wasn’t well flushed out, like Edith and Severin, but I think some of that is because the narrator didn’t respect her in the same way he respected the others. He seemed to ignore Utch a lot and not really be there for her when she needed it. He was neglectful, I felt, and I couldn’t stand the way he seemed to ignore his children and let her be the sole parent. She had an interesting back story and she was vulnerable in a way I didn’t feel the other characters were. She got stronger, in my mind, the more we learned about her. I felt the final chapter was when she was the strongest.

I couldn’t relate to any of these characters and that was another part of what made this book so hard to enjoy. There didn’t seem to be anything to their stories besides their intimate relationships. There was nothing about their children and other than wrestling, almost nothing about their jobs. It felt like all they did was have sex and go to wresting competitions. I couldn’t see myself in either of these situations so it was easy to check out.

Irving

John Irving Image via the author’s website

The one part of the book that stuck out to me was when they went on vacation together. That passage was much more fun and almost friendly, while the rest of their relationship seemed so adversarial. Severin and the narrator seemed less at odds with each other and the women almost felt like friends. It was the only time they seemed to actually be enjoying their affairs.

I got bored with all of the wrestling. Irving is known to be a big wrestler and wrestling fan so I wasn’t surprised by it, but this book had far too much in my opinion. Some of it added to the plot but it was a very small amount. The majority of it was just filler to take a break from the dark nature of this story. I really thought the book could have cut down on it.

The book turns even darker toward the end and we realize that this is a question of trust, love, and betrayal. The whole affair turns sour, as the reader knows is the only option. The good things in life can’t last but watching them fall apart is always the worst part. I can’t imagine how the characters thought their relationship was going to end, but badly seemed like the only option. Our narrator thought he know what was going on in someone else’s relationship because of how closely he was involved with one member, but the ending went to show that we never really know what’s going on between two people.

Writer’s Takeaway: I think there are some elements of this book that Irving took into later novels which were very positive. Some of the character building was great. I love that Irving has unique characters. There were some elements I consider almost quintessential to Irving novels that were missing. It all goes to show that writers are always evolving. This was his third book and the titles he’s best known for come later. It’s always a step forward.

Not a book for me, mostly because of the subject. Two out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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