[Book Review] A Prayer for Owen Meany

A Prayer for Owen Meany / John Irving (Powell's Books)
In the summer of 1953, two 11-year-old boys — best friends — are playing in a Little League baseball game in New Hampshire. One of the boys hits a foul ball that kills his best friend's mother. Owen Meany believes he didn't hit the ball by accident. He believes he is God's instrument. What happens to Owen after 1953 is extraordinary and terrifying. He is Irving's most heartbreaking hero.

I first read A Prayer for Owen Meany years ago.  The experience left me ambivalent, without a clear feeling one way or another about the story.  Normally I utterly love or detest John Irving's books, but this one left me unsure.  I found the impetus to reread Owen Meany in signing up to lead book discussion.

For me, A Prayer for Owen Meany is largely a book about anger at United States' politics and the Vietnam War.  The story told is that of the life of a unique boy named Owen Meany.  In classic Irving style, we meet characters who are complex, idiosyncratic, and flawed.  However while his humor may be subtle and unexpected at times, the moral and political essays are significantly less so.

The book discussion itself was wildly successful.  Incredible turn out and very active discussion.  A somewhat humorous moment occurred however when it was realized that many of the participants had children older than me when talking about  youth activism.  I believe the trigger was the mention of 9/11 occurring while I was in high school.  This book has so much going on to pull on in a book discussion, even for those who didn't like it.

Discussion Questions
  • Why did you like, or just as importantly, why did you not like, A Prayer for Owen Meany?
  • What do you think A Prayer for Owen Meany is about?
    • Faith, fate, Vietnam, friendship?
  • Do you think Johnny Wheelwright is a reliable narrator?
  • Is Owen Meany likeable?
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany may provide humor in unexpected places, and not always through situations that should be funny.  Did anything in the story make you laugh?
    • Johnny discovering the armadillo for the first time, the VW Beetle on stage, Grandmother hiding her wigs?
  • Why do you think Hester was so angry?  Do you think it was only in response to being "just" a daughter, or do you think there was more, unsaid, that happened to her?
  • The 'miracle' of Owen Meany and his precognition gives Johnny Wheelwright his faith, Johnny Wheelwright manufacturers a 'miracle' and tricks Reverend Merrill into rediscovering his faith.  Do you think the author is saying anything about miracles?  Do you think the book is pro-religion or anti-religion?
  • Do you think that Owen's conception was a miracle, or do you think his mother was the victim of sexual assault and either lacked the mental facilities to understand what happened to her or that the memory is repressed under mental trauma and damage?
  • What do you think of the idea of being "just a Joseph."
  • How does the 'peace movement' experiences described in A Prayer for Owen Meany compare to those during more current military conflicts (Iraq, Afghanistan, etc)?
    • Apathy vs activisim, personal connection with issues, Owen's statement that without the draft people would care less about Vietnam, military conflicts without declaration of war, the 'War on Terror,' 9/11?


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