Readers of John Irving’s The World According to Garp—and perhaps of his earlier three novels as well, especially after their paperback rerelease following the tremendous success of The World According to Garp in 1978—will have no difficulty identifying The Hotel New Hampshire as the work of the same author. What other novelist deals with bears and post-World War II Vienna? Of course, other contemporary novelists—even those with aspirations to seriousness—trade in sex and violence, but never with the grotesque twists and the tone of black comedy that flavor an Irving novel in the mixture of comedy and tragedy that his novelist-hero Garp recommends. The Irving touch is further apparent in the eccentric recurring aphorisms (“Sorrow floats” and “Keep passing the open windows”) and symbolic family jokes that carry the book’s thematic weight. Finally, The Hotel New Hampshire, like The World According to Garp, acknowledges the facts of death and disaster but nevertheless affirms life and human love and pays tribute to survival and the heroism of ordinary but remarkable people. To these elements familiar from the earlier novel, The Hotel New Hampshire adds homage to the value of dreams.
Such elements have drawn many readers to The Hotel New Hampshire and made them fall in love with it, as they did with The World According to Garp. As before, Irving’s lively imagination has produced some vivid characters, a series of outrageous and often shocking events, and clever resolutions for the many strands of the plot. If this were a first novel, such qualities would be adequate to gain him attention and an eager audience. Yet after The World According to Garp, it comes as a disappointment, showing simultaneously too much strain to capture the freshness of the earlier work and too little effort to create a novel which is successful as a whole.
The unifying device for this saga of the Berry family—a series of hotels which Win Berry names and manages—is appealing and potentially fertile for action, character, and theme. However, most of the action that takes place in and around these hotels could have occurred as well in a family residence or an apartment building; the characters introduced are rather limited both in number and in roundness of personality, and the thematic point of the use of hotels is actually presented only near the end, when Win says that a good hotel “provides you with the space, and with the atmosphere, for what it is you need . . . a good hotel makes those gestures that are like touching you, or saying a kind word to you, just when (and only when) you need it.” The human comfort and tolerance hotels provide are certainly evident in the third and last Hotel New Hampshire, but not so much in the earlier ones. It takes Win a long time—and many family tragedies—to achieve these ideals.
Win’s obsession with hotels begins when he spends a summer before college working at the Arbuthnot-by-the-Sea, a resort hotel in Maine. There he encounters not only the woman he is to marry, Mary Bates, another summer worker, but a Viennese Jew named Freud and his bear, State o’ Maine (changed that summer to Earl, because that is all he ever says), who perform for the hotel guests. Freud takes off for Europe (despite the bad situation there for Jews—it is 1939), leaving Earl in Win’s hands and blessing Win and Mary as a push toward their getting married.
After their marriage, however, Win leaves to make money for college by performing around the country with Earl until the bear becomes too old, returning home only long enough to impregnate Mary. They end up with five children, Frank, Franny, and John (the book’s narrator), each a year apart; then four years later, Lilly, and four years after her, Egg. Meanwhile, Earl is shot by mistake on the family’s return visit to a dilapidated Arbuthnot-by-the-Sea, and Win (Father) begins teaching at a private boys’ school in Dairy, New Hampshire.
The first Hotel New Hampshire is born when the town’s private girls’ school closes, leaving a building with one floor full of kindergarten-size bathroom fixtures and lots of school furniture screwed down to the floor. Father manages with some work to transform it into a hotel, even though the bookings are guaranteed only for the boys’ school’s big football game in the fall and its graduation in June.
Unfortunately, poor bookings are not the only grief the first Hotel New Hampshire brings. The night it opens, Franny gets raped by three teenage football players, including one she is in love with; the family’s beloved but flatulent dog Sorrow has to be put to sleep; and later Win’s father has a fatal heart attack when confronted in his closet by the supposedly deceased dog, now stuffed by aspiring taxidermist Frank but in an uncharacteristically ferocious stance. After such troubles, it is a relief to receive from the long-unheard-from Freud an invitation to come help him manage a hotel in Vienna, even...
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