5 Best Books by John Irving: A Comprehensive Guide

John Irving is one of the most prominent American authors of our time. Through his works, he has touched on themes of love, loss, and the human experience, weaving intricate stories that have captured the hearts of millions of readers worldwide. This comprehensive guide will explore the best books written by John Irving, giving you an overview of his writing style, themes, critical reception, and awards, as well as a detailed plot summary for each of his top books.

5 Best Books by John Irving: A Comprehensive Guide

A Brief Introduction to John Irving

Who is John Irving?

Setting Free the Bears: A Novel (Ballantine Reader's Circle)

John Winslow Irving was born in New Hampshire in 1942. He grew up in a family of educators; his father was a teacher and his mother was a nurse. This upbringing instilled in him a love of learning and a desire to explore the world through literature.

Irving attended Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, where he excelled academically and developed a passion for writing. He went on to study English at the University of Pittsburgh, where he continued to hone his craft.

After completing his undergraduate studies, Irving moved to Iowa City to attend the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. It was here that he received an MFA in creative writing and began to develop his unique voice as a writer.

Irving began his writing career with his debut novel, Setting Free the Bears, which was published in 1968. The book was a critical success, earning praise for its inventive plot and engaging characters.

It was quickly followed by other acclaimed works, such as The Water-Method Man, The 158-Pound Marriage, and The World According to Garp. These books established Irving as a major literary figure and earned him a devoted following of readers.

Irving’s later works, such as A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Cider House Rules, and A Widow for One Year, continued to explore complex themes and feature well-drawn characters. His books have won numerous awards, including the National Book Award, the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and the O. Henry Award. Irving has also been inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Irving’s Writing Style and Themes

Irving’s writing style is known for its intricate plots, well-developed characters, and in-depth exploration of complex themes. He often writes stories that span generations, exploring the connections between past and present.

One common theme in his books is the idea of fate and the interconnectedness of all things. Irving is fascinated by the idea that seemingly random events can have profound consequences, and he explores this idea in many of his works.

Another recurring theme in Irving’s books is the absurdity of life. He is known for his dark sense of humor and his willingness to tackle difficult subjects such as death, loss, and grief.

Irving is also interested in the difficulties of love and relationships. He often writes about characters who are struggling to connect with others, whether it’s due to their own emotional baggage or external circumstances beyond their control.

Despite the weighty themes of his work, Irving’s writing is always engaging and accessible. He has a gift for creating memorable characters and vivid settings that draw readers in and keep them hooked until the very end.

The World According to Garp

Plot Summary

The World According to Garp: A Novel

The World According to Garp is a novel written by John Irving, first published in 1978. The story follows the life of T.S. Garp, a writer and son of a feminist icon who is trying to find his way in a complicated world.

Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields, was a nurse during World War II and became a feminist icon after writing a book about her experiences. She raised Garp on her own and taught him to be independent and self-sufficient.

The novel explores themes of love, sexuality, and loss, and delves into relationships of all kinds. Garp struggles to balance the demands of his career, his family, and his own desires, all while dealing with tragedy and heartbreaking loss.

Garp’s first novel, A Sexual Suspect, is a critical success, but he finds it difficult to follow up with another book. He becomes involved with a group of radical feminists, including the famous Ellen Jamesians, who have all had their tongues cut out in protest of rape culture. Garp becomes obsessed with the idea of protecting his family from violence, and this obsession leads to tragic consequences.

Critical Reception and Awards

The World According to Garp was a critical and commercial success when it was first published, earning rave reviews from critics and readers alike. It won the National Book Award in 1980 and was later adapted into a film starring Robin Williams and Glenn Close.

The novel is often praised for its complex characters and exploration of gender and sexuality. Irving’s writing style is also highly regarded, with many critics noting his ability to blend humor and tragedy seamlessly.

Despite its success, The World According to Garp has also been the subject of controversy. Some feminists have criticized the novel for its portrayal of women, while others have praised it for its frank depiction of sexuality and exploration of gender roles.

Overall, The World According to Garp remains a beloved and influential novel, and its themes and characters continue to resonate with readers today.

A Prayer for Owen Meany

Plot Summary

A Prayer for Owen Meany: A Novel

A Prayer for Owen Meany is a novel written by John Irving that explores the story of John Wheelwright and his best friend, Owen Meany. The novel is set in the 1950s and 1960s in Gravesend, New Hampshire, where the two boys grow up together. John and Owen are inseparable, and their friendship is the heart of the story.

John is the narrator of the story, and he tells the story of his friendship with Owen Meany, who he believes is a divine instrument. Owen is a unique and tragic character who is small in stature but has a powerful voice. He has a strange voice that is always in a high-pitched scream, and he believes that he is God’s instrument. Owen is also very intelligent and has a photographic memory, which he uses to memorize the Bible.

The novel explores themes of faith, fate, and purpose, as John tries to make sense of the strange events that seem to follow Owen wherever he goes. They both attend a private school, where Owen accidentally kills John’s mother during a baseball game. This event changes both of their lives forever, and they both struggle to come to terms with it.

The novel is a unique blend of humor and tragedy, and it is a powerful exploration of the human condition. It is a story of friendship, love, and sacrifice, and it will leave readers thinking long after they have finished reading it.

Critical Reception and Awards

A Prayer for Owen Meany was published in 1989 and was an immediate critical and commercial success. The novel won the O. Henry Award in 1987 and was named one of the best books of the year by numerous publications. It has since become one of Irving’s most beloved works.

The novel has been praised for its complex characters, its exploration of faith and destiny, and its unique blend of humor and tragedy. It has also been criticized for its length and its sometimes meandering plot. However, most readers agree that A Prayer for Owen Meany is a powerful and moving novel that is well worth the read.

Overall, A Prayer for Owen Meany is a beautifully written novel that explores the complexities of the human experience. It is a story of friendship, love, and sacrifice that will leave readers thinking long after they have finished reading it.

The Cider House Rules

Plot Summary

The Cider House Rules

The Cider House Rules is a poignant and thought-provoking novel that tells the story of Homer Wells, a young orphan who grows up and becomes a doctor at an orphanage in rural Maine. Homer is a complex character, struggling to find his place in the world and grappling with questions of identity, family, and morality.

The novel explores the difficult and controversial topic of abortion, as Homer becomes involved in the lives of several young women who come to the orphanage seeking help. Through these experiences, Homer is forced to confront his own beliefs and values, and to question the role of doctors in society.

Despite the weighty themes it tackles, The Cider House Rules is also a deeply moving and heartwarming story of love, friendship, and the human spirit. Homer’s relationships with the other characters in the novel – including his mentor, Dr. Larch, and the young couple, Candy and Wally – are beautifully drawn and full of emotional depth.

Critical Reception and Awards

The Cider House Rules has received widespread critical acclaim since its publication in 1985. It won the National Book Award that same year, and has since been adapted into a successful film starring Tobey Maguire and Charlize Theron.

The novel has been praised for its vivid and fully-realized characters, its exploration of complex moral issues, and its emotional resonance. Irving’s writing is often described as lyrical and evocative, and his ability to capture the nuances of human relationships is unparalleled.

Overall, The Cider House Rules is widely considered one of Irving’s greatest works, and a masterpiece of modern literature. It is a novel that will stay with readers long after they have turned the final page, and a testament to the power of storytelling to move and inspire us.

A Widow for One Year

Plot Summary

A Widow for One Year: A Novel

A Widow for One Year is the story of Ruth Cole, a writer who is struggling to come to terms with the loss of her children and her marriage. The novel explores themes of grief, love, and the power of storytelling as Ruth tries to make sense of her past and her present. The story is both heartbreaking and uplifting, as the characters learn to forgive and move on.

Critical Reception and Awards

A Widow for One Year was also a critical success, earning praise for its vivid characters and engaging storytelling. It won the Prix Femina Étranger in 1999 and was later adapted into the film The Door in the Floor, starring Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger.

These are just a few of John Irving’s great works. In each of his books, he explores the complexities of the human experience with wit, humor, and deep empathy. Whether you are a lifelong fan or new to his writing, these best books are sure to captivate and move you.


What are the best John Irving books?

The most popular books written by John Irving include The World According to Garp John Irving, The Last Chairlife, A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Hotel New Hampshire, and The Cider House Rules.

Is John Irving still writing?

John Irving’s long literary success has no ending in sight. Irving has no plans to stop writing novels, despite his elderly age.

What awards has John Irving won?

Irving has received the National Book Award for fiction, the Academy Award for Best Writing, the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts, and the Common Wealth Award of Distinguished Service.

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