Until I Find You
'According to his mother, Jack Burns was an actor before he was an actor, but Jack's most vivid memories of childhood were those moments when he felt compelled to hold his mother's hand. He wasn't acting then.'
Upon finishing this book, I completed a near five year journey through John Irving’s fantastic body of work. This, the final novel of his I got around to reading (at least until Avenue of Mysteries is released) is a bit of a controversial one. Many consider it Irving’s magnum opus, while others call it the worst thing he has ever written.
Myself, I found myself somewhere in the middle. While I liked a lot of this book, I found much of my enjoyment marred by some pretty serious flaws.
The main problem is the novels length. Irving is no stranger to long stories, but at close to a thousand pages, this is by far the largest work he has published to date. This isn’t a problem in itself, however, the story feels incredibly padded.
Nearly everything in the book feels drawn out. The first two hundred pages see the main character, Jack Burns, as a four year old boy, dragged from city to city across Europe by his mother in search of his absent Father. It’s a lengthy segment that adds up to little more than a prologue and was almost enough to put me off the book entirely.
What follows next is Jack’s school days in Canada, his college days in the US and his career as a successful Hollywood actor. Again, everything feels padded, as if no single incident in Jack’s life can pass without and eight page description. It gets exhausting very quickly.
There’s also a problem with repetition. Every point Irving makes, every memorable quote from a character or lesson to be learned is hammered into the reader again and again as the novel progresses. It’s an odd technique and one that comes across as patronising, as if the reader can’t be trusted to remember all this vital information.
It might not have been such a hard slog if Jack himself had been a more interesting character, but sadly, despite the nine hundred pages dedicated to him, he still feels oddly undeveloped by the end. Far too often he seems to simply drift through life, lead by the various characters into his various jobs and eventual movies. He makes no decisions on his own. Even toward the end, where he finally seems to show some initiative, it’s at the suggestion of his therapist. I finished the book feeling no real attachment to Jack, something I never thought I’d say of an Irving lead character.
Despite these flaws, there’s still a lot of really good stuff here. The lengthy beginning does have some payoff when Jack eventually learns that his memories don’t tell the whole story and he goes in search of the truth, though it can feel like too little payoff too late… The way Irving handles Jack’s false memories and reveals the reality behind them is interesting and adds some much needed drama and intrigue into the second half of the novel.
Issues with padding aside, Irving’s writing remains as beautiful and dense as ever. His style is so just so readable, you can’t help but want more whenever you put the book down.
I also loved the scene where Jack wins the 1999 Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, an award which, in real life, went to Irving himself for The Cider House Rules.
Until I find You is a mixed bag, there’s some wonderful stuff here, marred down by a dull main character and a high page count. The book could easily have been condensed to closer to the six hundred page mark and would have been all the better for it. In the end, it’s certainly not Irving’s worst book, but it’s flawed, a book I won’t be in any hurry to return to.
While I enjoyed parts of it immensely, as the finale of my travels through John Irving’s canon, it’s a disappointing one….
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