The Cider House Rules is yet another of John Irving's sweeping sagas through many lives and many years, focused not so much on the Cider House, as on the orphanage of the fictional St. Clouds, Maine, and especially the life of Homer Wells, one of the orphans who is never successfully placed in a home for adoption and therefore comes close to being a personification of the institution. The rules of the Cider House are a metaphor for the social and moral rules that we all equip ourselves with and revise according to need.
This is the central philosophical question of the novel: what are the rules that we follow, when and how and why do we revise them, and what happens when we break them? Irving wraps this question around the question of abortion, a deeply emotional and controversial issue which has probably played a large role in shaping the reaction of many readers to the book itself. I know it certainly did for me.
Like all of Irving's books, this 1985 book is gritty, complex, sprawling, and makes no particular effort to make you comfortable. Irving makes no secret of his intention to attack conventionality and self-righteousness, while sparing morality and religion, placing Charlotte Brontë's famous quote right before the title. It is perhaps fitting then that what sticks in my head after reading this book is not the characters and their lives as much as the philosophical premise of the novel. By making his novels so sweeping and wide-ranging, and by taking us into the heads of so many different characters, Irving does not create the tight emotional identification with characters that is more the norm nowadays. Unfortunately this meant that I found it a little too easy to put aside, in spite of the fact that I generally like coming at stories from several angles to get a better perspective.
In the end, I am ambivalent about the novel, although I am sure that I will be chewing over the questions it raised for some time. I think Mr. Irving would be pleased.