The novel, set in the 1950s in the prep school town of Gravesend, is an extraordinary account of friendship, coming of age, families, "normalcy," politics, faith, and doubt. The title character is an unusually small child--as an adult barely five feet tall--with a strange and striking voice that makes many people uneasy.

The only son of a New Hampshire granite quarrier and his odd and reclusive wife, Owen is best friends with Johnny Wheelwright, the narrator of the book and grandson of one of the town's most distinguished families. The friendship is sealed by a freak accident when Owen hits a baseball that kills Johnny's mother, Tabitha, who is just arriving at the game.

The remainder of the novel is a back-and-forth between past and present as Johnny searches for his identity--his mother is unmarried and never reveals the father's name--and Owen searches for his destiny--he believes that he is an instrument of God. Both searches have amazing resolutions.


Some of the novel's most interesting aspects are its narrative techniques. One of the first things a reader notices is that Owen Meany's speech appears in all capital letters, variously interpreted as highlighting the highly unusual sound of his speech and the more likely interpretation that Irving intends him to be a Christ figure. Written in the first person by an adult John Wheelwright, the novel's bookends are two deaths: Johnny's mother Tabitha's freak death from a baseball hit by Owen Meany, and Owen's death that is foreshadowed from the time of Tabitha's death.

In fact, one of the many themes of the book is that of identity--Johnny's unknown father prompting a search with Owen doing most of the prodding and thinking on the matter. A parallel theme is Owen's search for his destiny, which begins after the ball he hits kills Tabitha Wheelwright and prompts him to believe that he is God's "instrument." The novel also provides a rich portrait of an unusual family arrangement, one that interrogates the notion of "traditional" families working best.

Johnny lives with his single mother and his grandmother, the Wheelwright matriarch, then later with his beloved stepfather Dan. Owen, who has an "intact" family, spends most of his time with the Wheelwrights and is beloved by the entire family. Together in their odd configuration these characters enact the often touted "family values" of love, loyalty, friendship, and respect.

Another theme is that of free will versus determination, between faith and doubt, which is found primarily in conversations between Owen (full of faith, unwavering in his beliefs that his destiny is predetermined) and Johnny (full of doubt and ambivalence, until Owen's death), and in the unfolding story of Owen's life and where it ultimately leads him.

In terms of the novel's usefulness to medicine and other health care professions, I believe that it wonderfully interrogates the notion of normalcy, particularly the "normal" body and "normal" families. It also can lead to compelling discussions on issues of faith.



Place Published

New York

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