The Cider House Rules tells the story of Homer Wells, an orphan from St Cloud’s orphanage in Maine who, like David Copperfield (DC is one of his favorite books), wonders if he will be the hero of his own life or if "this station will be held by somebody else". After many failed attempts at finding him adoptive parents, everybody agrees that he belongs to St Cloud’s, where he himself wants to be "of use"…

Wilbur Larch is a Doctor and the director of St Cloud’s and he knows how Homer can be of use. Although many women come to St Cloud’s to give birth and leave their babies there, other women come to have abortions. In the first part of the twentieth century, abortion is illegal in Maine, and Doctor Larch practices them for free, providing a welcomed alternative to places where women can have them for a large fee, from people who have no medical training, and in unsanitary conditions. For many people, delivering babies is the Lord’s works while abortion is the Devil’s work: for Wilbur, it is all the Lord’s work. Doctor Larch passes all his knowledge to Homer, who is a model student and a quick learner; he soon becomes more accomplished than the most accomplished midwife. Between Larch and Homer develops a father/son relationship, and though Homer is never adopted, he is loved like a son, and he loves the doctor like a father. One day, Homer meets a rich couple who changes his life: he leaves St Cloud’s to work in an orchard with Wally, the orchard owner’s son, and falls in love with Candy, his girlfriend. Homer respects Larch’s work, but he doesn’t ever want to perform abortions, he believes that the fetus has a soul, and he doesn’t even want to be a doctor. However, Larch would like him to be his successor…

The most obvious theme in The Cider House Rules is abortion, probably because it is the most controversial, but The Cider House Rules is about much more than abortion and the pro-choice/pro-life debate (the title does not even refer to it, which should be a hint). The Cider House Rules is about the control we have over our own lives and over other people’s lives, and the conclusion it makes about free will is a very troubling one. What Irving seems to say is that in the world there are the ones who make the rules, the ones who live by them and the ones who break them. Sometimes, the rules, even the ones we make for ourselves, are simply not adapted to real situations…

Wilbur Larch plays God, not only because he does what he calls the Lord’s works, but also because he wants to be in control of every aspects of his life: the best way for him to do this is never to have sex (to avoid getting sick, since his first and only sexual experience infected him with gonorrhea), and it is also to rewrite the history of St Cloud’s… Larch (like Owen Meany in A Prayer for Owen Meany) is quite the revisionist: by inventing a happily-ever-after life to those orphans who died in his care, by making sure that Homer will never be called to fight in World War II (like Owen Meany made sure his friend John Wheelwright would never go to Vietnam) and by shaping his destiny, well-meaning Wilbur Larch tries to take control of his own fate and of the fate of those around him. As much as this kind of people is detestable in real life (the one than know what’s best for you, and find fit to lie and manipulate "for your own good"…), and as much as I was ambivalent towards Owen Meany (the character, not the book, which I loved), I thought that Doctor Larch was a really likeable guy with a just cause (though I didn’t envy Homer’s situation). Homer is a helpful and dependable person, and it is fortunate for him that his main ambition is to be "of use": if other characters are leaders, Homer is all his life directed by other people’s wills, at one point he is even asked to "wait and see", and all his life he will indeed be used. And as for the question, is he the hero of his own life, it becomes indeed relevant and its answer is left for us to ponder…

Another theme in The Cider House Rules is the importance of literature. The orphans are accustomed to hearing a story read to them before sleeping. The books chosen are orphans stories like David Copperfield, Great Expectations, and Jane Eyre. When Melony (Homer’s first girl friend, a big girl angry at the world) reads Jane Eyre, she always refers to passages concerning Jane at the orphanage, as if the rest of the story isn’t relevant for her, and indeed her life after the orphanage won’t resemble Jane’s… There is also a funny reference to Dickens’s Little Dorrit: none of the character can get past the first few pages. I have been wondering why, but since I haven’t read this novel, my only guess is that John Irving himself has never been able to get past them (we all have our list of books we couldn’t get into…)

There is indeed a lot of humor in the Cider House Rules, although I have a problem with the critics who qualify it a "funny" book. Of course there are hilariously grotesque situations in the novel, there is a peculiar but irresistible sense of humor throughout, but the main mood of the book is not what I would call "funny"… An example of humor is the names of the characters, which are often comical or meaningful in other ways associated to the persons who wear them (like Melony who was meant to be a Melody and who owns her fitting name to a typo!) This is amplified by the importance given in the novel to the process of naming the orphans, undertaken by the nurses…

One aspect of the Cider House Rules might seem unusual: the fact that the narration sometimes focuses on one character, then on another, without transition. I viewed it as a way to emphasize the fact that though in different locations, the characters who used to live as a community in St Cloud’s are tied to each other by unbreakable binds, similar to binds that tie families… 

The Cider House Rules is a riveting story, with complex characters and a large scope: I loved it as much as I loved A Prayer for Owen Meany, and though the two stories are different on the surface, there are many similarities: they both deal with fate and free will and how much control we can have over our lives. As a writer, Irving (like doctor Larch) must have had a blast playing God and controlling the fates of all his characters…

Rating: 5/5