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December 17, 2008 |

By Dustin Rowles | Books | December 17, 2008 |

The Cider House Rules is a book with characters so memorable and endearing, I was quite sad to come to the 552nd page of my copy; that is where the story of Homer Wells ends. John Irving fleshed out with incredible detail the world in which Homer lives, including several major and minor characters so thoroughly human, that their fates often made me genuinely happy or genuinely upset at the cruelty allotted to them in their small, fictional lives.

The novel spans (roughly) the years from the 1880s - 1960s, and tells the intertwining histories of two men. The protagonists are Dr. Wilbur Larch and Homer Wells. Dr. Larch is a physician who founds St. Cloud’s hospital and orphanage — the site of Homer’s birth, and subsequently, his childhood. At the hospital, Dr. Larch provides illegal — but medically safe — abortions and delivers unwanted children, who then spend a part (or all, in Homer’s case) of their early years in the orphanage, where they are cared for by Dr. Larch, Nurses Edna and Angela, and Mrs. Grogan. John Irving spends the first 100 pages or so describing Dr. Larch’s life before he came to St. Cloud’s, the founding of the hospital, and Homer’s childhood. The writing is beautifully detailed, poignant, and made me laugh out loud as often as it made me cringe. There are some very gruesome, graphic passages about illegal abortions, but they are crucial because they provide historical context as well as explain Dr. Larch’s personal mission to ensure that every woman who comes to him has access to proper care, regardless of her personal decision.

Homer Wells, after several attempted adoptions, comes to call St. Cloud’s home. When he reaches a somewhat mature age and it becomes apparent that he will not be adopted another time, Dr. Larch, who’s grown fond of Homer despite his best efforts to remain unattached, decides that Homer will be of use as long as he’s around. Homer becomes Larch’s assistant, and after being educated by Gray’s Anatomy and Larch himself, becomes something of a quasi-obstetrician. Homer’s unease regarding abortions — he believes that fetus’ have souls — forces a wedge between the two men, who have acquired something of a father/son relationship. When Homer is 20, the opportunity to see more of the world beyond St. Cloud’s presents itself in the form of Candy Kendall and Wally Worthington, a young couple who seek Dr. Larch’s skills in abortion. Dr. Larch, who’s known for a while that the time for Homer to leave the orphanage is coming, encourages Homer to leave St. Cloud’s and travel to the Worthington’s coastal apple orchard.

At Ocean View, Wally’s family’s orchard, Homer makes somewhat of a home, and is sort of adopted by Olive and Senior Worthington. Incidentally, World War II is approaching, and Wally, to whom Candy is engaged, volunteers. Homer, who has been in love with Candy since the day she arrived at St. Cloud’s, is unable to fight due to a congenital heart defect (or so he believes; Dr. Larch altered Homer’s medical record without Homer’s knowledge because he was afraid of losing the boy, who’d become a son to him). When Homer and Candy receive the news that Wally’s plane has been shot down over Burma, they presume him dead, and have an affair. I know that sounds very callous when written like that, but in the novel it’s a lot more complicated. I’m just over-simplifying for the sake of condensing this review.


The short version is this: Candy hides her pregnancy by traveling with Homer to St. Cloud’s for the winter and spring. When the two return with a baby in May, they tell everyone that Homer adopted one of the children of the orphanage. Wally returns from Burma, where he did not die, but spent 10 months MIA. He and Candy marry, and Homer raises his son to believe he has been adopted. Homer and Candy eventually tell Angel (Homer’s son) and Wally about their affair. Wally has known the entire time but has accepted Homer and Candy’s story out of his love for them both. Homer ends up returning to St. Cloud’s, where Dr. Larch, who has been quite present in the story (although I’ve sort of omitted him, which is a shame, because he was my favorite main character), has falsified an educational history for Homer, thus allowing him to continue Dr. Larch’s work in St. Cloud’s. Homer comes to realize that abortions are necessary to have as a choice for women, and he cannot abstain from performing them because of his personal beliefs. Dr. Larch, who has been addicted to ether for several decades, dies of an ether overdose just before Homer comes to this conclusion.


This isn’t a very analytic review, and I didn’t really add a whole lot of insight, but I really enjoyed this novel. It was a pretty easy read, and for as heartrending as the story was as a whole, I found it ultimately uplifting, and as corny as this may sound: triumphant. I must warn you though, if you’re pro-life, you’ll no doubt take issue with the strong pro-choice sentiments that permeate the entire book. However, if you’re pro-choice, it’ll make you incredibly grateful that Roe v Wade was passed; also, you’ll want to throw a (hardcover) copy of this book at anyone who makes the argument that it should be repealed.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. Details about here and the growing number of participants and their blogs, from which these reviews are pulled, are here. And check here for more of eat my shorts’ reviews.

Cannonball Read / eat my shorts

Books | December 17, 2008 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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