When John Irving’s fifth novel, The Hotel New Hampshire, appeared, the critical response was as mixed and complex as the book’s plot. Some critics would claim the repetition and editorializing by the characters often lend a too-heavy hand to the otherwise quirky and offbeat wisdom of the work. Still others provided testament to the novel’s acclaim by speaking favorably to the farcical work with the sensibilities of and to the times, the book a timely spokesperson for gender, feminist, and racial issues of the twentieth century.
Characterization contributes to the carefully wrought, even conscientious, structure of the novel. The parents are oddly detached as parents, and the children are believably just as strange. The tone is humorously dark, a vein of irony pumping through the heartbeat of the story that is part farce, part fairytale. The characters endure in the dark turns of fate, and the way these characters respond to devastation is executed by way of quirky, sometimes even hilarious, dysfunctional behavior. The events are thus turned ironically farcical or farcically ironic, requiring and, at the same time, lending to a suspension of disbelief: A mother and child die, evoking pain, but a long-dead stuffed dog provides comic relief when the narrator and middle child of the family deliver the message that Sorrow the dog, not hope, floats.
Just as such literary devices make The Hotel New Hampshire a uniquely imaginative tale, several themes in the novel move the story forward. Life and its forms (the innocent Egg and his embryonic mother by default; the almost manic human Freud and his loping animal counterpart, the farting family pet) clash with death and near-death threats. Still, life themes and death themes, and Irving’s implicit speaking out against the threats to life, are treated with comic relief, the follow ups to grievous events: Sorrow floats (lives); Earl the bear lives on through Susie the Bear; the love of a man and a woman, though siblings, salves the wounds of the victim of rape.
As Irving would later maintain, no matter how dark or devastating the event, he will always find a way to extract some humor from it. The Hotel New Hampshire, then, becomes evocative in locale, exotic in event, extraordinary in character, and esteemed as yet another uniquely imaginative, engaging, and entertaining Irving story.