Group Read: The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving

Talk75 Books Challenge for 2012

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Group Read: The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving

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Jul 12, 2012, 7:10pm

As promised, here is the new thread for the group read of The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving.

This weekend is our first book discussion focusing on chapters 1-4 (which is around 100 pages in most editions). If you reference something from later chapters please just include SPOILER beforehand so people who don't want the story spoiled can skip that part.

It's been a couple of years since I last read this and I'm a bit behind on my reading for this section because of my new job, but I'm ready to roll whenever someone else is!

Ready, set, GO!

Edited: Jul 13, 2012, 9:30pm

I just finished the first two chapters and was struck by the idea that chapter 1 would have made a marvelous short story or novella by its self.

Jul 13, 2012, 9:58pm

Very good point. I always start thinking about family legends when I read that chapter. Most families have them but few are as impacted by their family legends as the people in Irving's books. When you stop to think about it, so many of his characters' lives are completely defined by their personal family legend: Garp's story of his conception, the death of Ruth Cole's brothers, Jack Burns' mother's version of his father, etc. For me, the story of State-O-Maine is one of the most compelling, especially since it defines so much of the lives of the Berry kids.

What do you think of John as a narrator? Is he sympathetic and believable?

Jul 14, 2012, 9:15am

I finished Chapter 4 last night, and I am loving this book!

#2 - That's a good point, Amanda! In several of Irving's books, I've been struck by how the book as a whole could be described as sweeping or epic. For example in A Widow for One Year, we meet Ruth Cole when she is 4 years old, and then follow her into adulthood. But Irving creates this sweeping effect not but covering all of the events in a life, but by providing in-depth views of a few events. As a result, these close-up views of specific events could stand on their own.

#3 - Leah - That's interesting! I haven't read many of Irving's books yet, but as I do, I'll be looking for the role of family legends in them. I agree that the State O' Maine story is an excellent one. I love that we get the kids' reactions to the story in the first few pages. We learn a lot about them by the ways in which they contribute to the storytelling.

I think that John is a very effective narrator. As a middle child, he seems to be observant. He also seems like a fairly neutral party. I have to imagine that the story would be much different if Franny were telling it. However, although John is the narrator, he isn't the focus of the stories (at least not yet), so I don't feel like I know as much about him as I do Frank or Franny. He is obviously very influenced by Franny and very protective of her.

In an interview with John Irving, he said that once a book is published, the only part he reads again are chapter titles and first lines. I thought the first line of this book was a good one:

"The summer my father bought the bear, none of us was born - we weren't even conceived: not Frank, the oldest; not Franny, the loudest; not me, the next; and not the youngest of us, Lilly and Egg."

Clearly, Father buying a bear is going to be an important part of this chapter (also evidenced by the chapter title, "The Bear Called State O' Maine"), but I also found it interesting how the kids were introduced, each by their position in the family except Franny, who transcends her role as second child.

The first line of State O' Maine's story is also repeated several times: "He was too old to be a bear anymore."

Jul 14, 2012, 10:43am

Yeah, I love that line about being too old to be a bear. It's a great idea.

Jul 14, 2012, 7:27pm

Possible Spoilers up through Chapter 4

One of the things that I've noticed about John Irving is that his stories can often be described in a way that makes them sound ordinary or even mundane. So far, this book is about the Berry family. The older three kids attend the prep school where their dad teaches and their grandfather coaches football. The first four chapters are a coming-of-age story, with serious parts that show what the family is made of when they are faced with adversity. But Irving also slips in parts of the story that are out-of-the-ordinary and almost unbelievable. For example, the fact that Win Berry buys a bear and tries to make a living by traveling around with it is certainly not a typical part of most kids' formative years. Even small details, such as the fact that the family dog was put to sleep because of its excessive gas problem, are suprising and unusual. But Irving integrates these parts so well that I almost don't think to question them. For me, the unusual details and plot points make the story more interesting and make the Berry family feel unique, rather than just representatives of a general category (East Coast boarding school family). But I think that it would be easy for authors to take this too far - making the story absurd by the use of too many unique twists and details.

What do you think of this element of Irving's writing? Does he do this in other books as well?

Jul 14, 2012, 8:54pm

He definitely does this in many of his books, often by recreating the "nuclear" family out of a somewhat bizarre cast of characters, yet it never feels strained or absurd. I actually have found myself reading one of his books thinking that his families are somehow more real than most, which is a testament, I think, to the fact that he represents the absurd so honestly and without fanfare. Once you get inside his stories it's so easy to take the things he writes as the natural way of things.

Isn't the story of Sorrow the flatulent dog just wonderful and heartbreaking?

Jul 14, 2012, 9:33pm

SPOILER if you haven't read chapter4

On the topic of Franny: When that big thing about women who dress slutty basically asking to be raped was happening a few years ago, I had a moment where I thought, "What would Franny Berry say?" She's so brash and sexual and to someone with their head up their ass she could be seen as begging for someone to attack her.

The thing that sticks with me from that part, however, will always be:

"Hey, listen," said Junior Jones. "You know what? When someone touches you and you don't want to be touched, that's not really being touched- you got to believe me. It's not you they touch when they touch you that way; they don't really get you, you understand. You've still got you inside you. Nobody's touched you- not really. You're a really good girl, you believe me? You've still got you inside you, you believe that?"

Never a truer word written.

Jul 15, 2012, 10:11am

#6 - Yes, Leah! That's exactly what I was talking about. I know that some people don't like Irving's books because of the rather unusual characters, but this is one of the things that I like most about his books. Sorrow the flatulent dog is a wonderful part of the story. I made a note when he was described briefly in Chapter 1 as the dog who would one day be put to sleep for his terrible farting, but I had no idea at that point what a big part he would play in the story.

Spoilers through Chapter 4
#7 - That quote from Junior is amazing, but I also like the way that he just keeps insisting (rightly so) that she's a good girl. I was somewhat surprised when he became John and Franny's ally on Halloween, but after hearing the story about his sister, it all made sense. I almost cheered out loud when he came to their rescue. And I love that he comes to Thanksgiving dinner at the Hotel in Chapter 5.

Jul 21, 2012, 10:37am

OK, once I got past the trip to Vienna, I could not put this book down! I finished it in just a few nights. It is definitely one of Irving's best, in my opinion. And the Berry family is one of the most memorable families that I've read about in a while. I'm so glad I read this. Thanks, Leah!

Jul 21, 2012, 4:26pm

HAHA. Sorry this group read fell apart a bit, but I've been run off my feet at work.

Anyway, sooo glad you loved it.

SPOILERS if you haven't read chapter 7

Isn't the description of the plane crash not the most hauntingly perfect thing you've ever read?

But Mother and Egg- and Sorrow- landed short of Zurich. Less than six hours out of Boston, they struck the Atlantic Ocean a glancing blow- off the coastline of that part of the continent called France... {Mother's} death- by some considerable stretch of the imagination- might have been initiated by the man in the white dinner jacket, but no pretty white sloop sailed her away. She shot from the sky to the bottom of the sea with her son beside her screaming, Sorrow hugged to his chest.

It was Sorrow, of couse, that the rescue planes saw. Searching for the sunken wreckage, trying to spot the first debris upon the surface of the gray morning water, someone saw a dog swimming. Closer examination convinced the rescue crew that the dog was just another victim; there were no survivors, and how could the rescue crew have known that this dog was already dead? This knowledge of what led the rescue crew to the bodies came as no surprise to my surviving family. We had learned this fact of Sorrow, previously, from Frank: Sorrow floats.

It was Franny who said, later, that we must all watch out for whatever form Sorry would take next; we must learn to recognize the different poses.

Jul 22, 2012, 10:56am


#11 - Leah - That part just knocked me off my feet. I saw the crash coming when they decided to take separate planes, but I was still shocked by it. And the fact that Sorrow was the first thing that the rescue team spotted was so perfect.

I thought that Irving really captured what it is like to be a real family. I loved how Franny and John's relationship with Frank developed over time. They thought he was odd when they were children, but the move to Vienna gave him a more solid role in the family, and eventually, they grew closer to him.

And I can't say enough good things about Irving's writing. I loved it when he described Frank as "born to the role of listening in on love."

Loved it!