The Hotel New Hampshire, Irving’s fifth novel, followed closely on the heels of The World According to Garp (1978), an enormous critical and commercial success which received the National Book Award for the best paperback novel of 1979. In many ways, it is of a piece with his first four novels: The symbolic use of bears, trips to Vienna, Maine as haven, the academic community, wrestling—all are featured in The Hotel New Hampshire. In fact, the seeds for The Hotel New Hampshire are planted by Garp: While in Vienna, Garp writes “The Pension Grillparzer,” about his father and a hotel, and near the end of the book Garp plans to publish his novel My Father’s Illusions.
In other ways, The Hotel New Hampshire departs from the earlier novels. Even though The World According to Garp impressed many readers as an outrageous novel with outsize, grotesque characters and improbable turns of events, it is essentially a traditional novel in terms of its structure, characters, and use of setting. The Hotel New Hampshire, despite its similarity to The World According to Garp in subjects and themes, breaks with its predecessors: Irving’s use of the fairy tale, myth, and Freudian psychology produces a novel in which the journey is the structure, and the characters and settings are symbolic rather than “real.”
At the same time, Irving’s novel is readable and accessible to the reading public, and it is his apparent simplicity that has made him a popular novelist as well as a serious one. (Indeed, both The World According to Garp, in 1982, and The Hotel New Hampshire, in 1984, were made into films.) Rather than being self-consciously arty and intellectual, Irving has chosen to emphasize story. It is true that The Hotel New Hampshire is a serious work which rewards a close reading, but Irving, unlike many modern novelists, has not lost sight of the King of Mice’s motto: “Life is serious, but art is fun.” In his entertaining, admittedly popular novels, Irving treats life seriously indeed.