I wanted to check The Cider House Rules out of the library, but it wasn't there, so I checked out The Fourth Hand instead. A couple of people have asked me how I like it. I told them each, "It's not his best." I've actually only read A Prayer for Owen Meany and Widow for One Year, but The Fourth Hand is not up to Meany standards (I can hardly remember Widow). It's funny, enough that I laughed out loud several times, and Irving's deft descriptive voice and deadpan way of setting forth the bizarre and mysterious ribbons that wind through everyday life is in this book as well as in Owen Meany. But this book didn't feel like a true novel. It felt like a writing exercise. Irving doesn't seem to care about any of his characters, and so it was hard for me to care. A John Irving writing exercise or thought experiment is still entertaining and well-crafted. But it isn't complete; he's not giving us anything we can care about. It's almost worse than that -- we feel we'd be sentimental fools if we did care about the people in this book. I don't see the point of writing a novel if you don't love your characters in some way.
One of the things I liked about The Fourth Hand is that the characters read books and talk about how the books move them. That rarely happens. The books discussed (and even excerpted, when a character is excited) are Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, and The English Patient. Irving puts to words something I've been thinking about recently, while musing about my book group and its limitations:
Once again Wallingford felt like a fool. He'd tried to invade a book Doris Clausen had loved, and a movie that had (at least for her) some painful memories attached to it. But books, and sometimes movies, are more personal than that; they can be mutually appreciated, but the specific reasons for loving them cannot satisfactorily be shared.Good novels and films are not like the news, or what passes for the news -- they are more than items. They are comprised of the whole range of moods you are in when you read them or see them. You can never exactly imitate someone else's love of a movie or a book, Patrick now believed.
Afterthought: I think the same thing is true for music. The impulse to share with someone a song or a series of songs that moves me in a particular way can be really strong, but it hardly ever works. I have one friend with whom I seem to share some set of musical emotional triggers, so a song or an artist will trigger us both the same way. But that never happens with other people, although the urge to use music as a shorthand for mood persists.