Although John Irving's first three novels were relatively well-received by the critics, he was basically unknown to the general public until The World According to Garp became an international bestseller when it was published in the United States in 1978. The novel features the memorably eccentric characters, outlandish situations, and moments both joyous and heartbreaking that so many readers cherish. It is the tragicomic life story of author T. S. Garp, son of the controversial feminist Jenny Fields. Garp's world is filled with "lunacy and sorrow." His mother is a radically independent nurse who conceives him by taking advantage of a brain-damaged soldier. His best friend is a transsexual who was formerly a tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles. Garp struggles vainly to protect the people he loves. His life is both hilarious and ultimately tragic.
Irving's novel was especially popular on college campuses across the nation because of its youthful energy, and the novelist was applauded for creating realistic and strong female characters. Garp is an intricately plotted novel, and its themes are universal: love, sex, death, art, gender roles. The book shares many of the characteristics of Irving novels published before and after it. For example, in several Irving novels, children grow up without one or more parents, as in The Hotel New Hampshire (1981) and The Cider House Rules (1985). Garp is also influenced by Irving's experiences in Austria in the 1960s, as are Setting Free the Bears (1968) and The 158-Pound Marriage (1974). For the most part, critics gave the novel excellent reviews. Millions continue to read Irving's books, and thus he remains one of the most popular and successful American writers of the last twenty-five years.