Divided into three parts, the book begins in 1958 with Eddie O’Hare, a sixteen year-old student at Phillips Exeter Academy, taking a summer job as a writer’s assistant to Ted Cole, a philandering husband and somewhat successful author of children’s books. As it turns out Ted and Marion Cole’s marriage is failing. Marion still grieves the loss of their two sons in a car accident four years previous. Both boys were students at Phillips Exeter Academy.
Ted and Marion have a four year-old daughter named Ruth. Unable to get beyond the deaths of her sons, Marion has covered the walls of their house with pictures of them. She shows little affection to Ruth. The hiring of Eddie O’Hare by Ted Cole is a deliberate attempt to drive Marion to infidelity, which Ted hopes will strengthen his case for gaining custody of Ruth when the couple divorces. Eddie O’Hare looks a lot like the couple’s dead sons. Eddie and Marion have an affair that lasts the summer. At the end of the summer, Marion disappears, taking with her most of the pictures of her dead sons, and leaving Ruth with her father.
Fast-forward to 1990. Ruth Cole is a successful, 36 year-old novelist. While in Europe researching prostitution for a novel, Ruth witnesses the murder of a prostitute at the hands of one of her customers. Ruth anonymously provides police with enough details about the killer that they are eventually able to arrest him.
Five years later, the detective who solved the prostitute’s murder realizes that Ruth Cole is the anonymous witness whose information helped solve the case because of details presented in one of her novels. While in Europe promoting her latest novel, Ruth meets the detective, and they soon fall in love, eventually returning to Ruth’s home in Vermont to marry. At the end of the book, Eddie O’Hare and Ruth reunite with Marion Cole, who has been living in Canada and writing detective novels.
John Irving’s inimitable writing style is what keeps me going back to read him. His descriptions people and relationships are as honest as I have ever read. His descriptions of sexual encounters, though not clinical, are straightforward and matter-of-fact, giving little, if any, attention to the emotions which are a part of the encounters. I much prefer this approach to the breathless, sweaty, passionate encounters some authors tend toward. Frankly, I don’t need a thrust-by-thrust description of lovemaking.
The thing I didn’t like about this novel was the jump from 1958 to the 1990s. I would like to have seen a little more about Ruth’s development, both as a woman and as a writer. The brief flashbacks we get simply aren’t enough. I would also like to have seen something about the healing process which Marion undergoes. How does she process her grief between the summer of 1958 and 1995, when we get to see her again? As a reader, I felt a little cheated.
Having said those things, I still found the novel enjoyable, though it is, as yet, my least favorite of Irving’s works.