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the Complete Review
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A Son of the Circus

John Irving

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To purchase A Son of the Circus

Title: A Son of the Circus
Author: John Irving
Genre: Novel
Written: 1994
Length: 682 pages
Availability: mass market paperback - US
trade paperback - US
A Son of the Circus - UK
A Son of the Circus - Canada
A Son of the Circus - India
Un enfant de la balle - France
Zirkuskind - Deutschland
Un hijo del circo - España

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Our Assessment:

B- : sprawling and ultimately too unfocussed, but still decent entertainment.

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
American Journal of Psychiatry A 12/1995 Glen O. Gabbard
Entertainment Weekly D 9/9/1994 Gene Lyons
New Statesman & Society . 25/8/1995 .
The NY Times Book Rev. B 4/9/1994 Robert Towers
People C+ 14/11/1994 .
Time B- 12/9/1994 Paul Gray
Wall Street Journal B 15/9/1994 Lee Lescaze

  Review Consensus:

  Exuberant, free-wheeling fun, with a lot going on, but no character the reader can really empathize with and a multitude of plots, verging on the chaotic

  From the Reviews:
  • "As always, Irving's ability to keep a seemingly infinite number of narrative balls in the air while dropping nary a one can't help but astonish those readers with sufficient stamina to remain conscious and alert throughout the entire performance." - Gene Lyons, Entertainment Weekly

  • "All things considered, I found it his most entertaining novel since Garp." - Robert Towers, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Unfortunately this hefty (633 pages) novel is like a three-ring circus run amok." - People

  • "A Son of the Circus (...) raises the question of the consequences when an author too forcefully reminds the reader of his narrative control. Irving makes his characters less involving because he overwhelms the illusion that they are free." - Paul Gray, Time

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       John Irving goes India. Irving is up front in admitting that this isn't a novel about India, but the bulk of it (and that is some bulk) is set there. Irving uses the setting, placing his emigrant hero, Dr. Daruwalla, in the country of his birth, emphasizing how it will "always remain an unknown and unknowable country." Irving seems a bit too pleased with this idea, but he does portray this sense of displacement and loss and rootlessness tolerably well, inevitably achieving some success just by laying it on so thick.
       Many Irving standbys can be found here: Austria (where Daruwalla got his education, and where his wife is from), Toronto (where he now lives), dwarves, lots of religious mumbo-jumbo, etc. etc. The story has several foci. One is that there is a murderer on the loose, and the book follows how the murderer is found out and entrapped. Irving does not handle this pseudo-mystery particularly well, leaving no doubt about who is responsible and few doubts about why, and not really convincing the readers to care.
       Another story line concerns twin brothers -- one a famous movie actor (starring in the Inspector Dhar series, which are scripted by none other than Dr. Daruwalla), the other a Jesuit who comes to Bombay, causing all sorts of confusion. The Jesuit gets on everyone's nerves, and even Irving is unable to show much sympathy for him, though that doesn't stop him from some tired religious talk.
       There are also the dwarves and the circus, to which Daruwalla feels particularly attached. His hobby, if one can call it that, is to seek out the gene that causes achondroplasia, and so he goes around collecting blood samples from dwarves (naturally found in circuses) on each trip to India. Daruwalla feels drawn to the circus and it is one of the few places he feels at home.
       There are several other storylines, most overlapping, but none is truly effective. The book seems cobbled together, Irving taking what he thought were good ideas and tossing them all in one big stew. The good doctor is of course also a Parsi, one of the smallest Indian minorities. There are Indian cripples and prostitutes and varieties of transsexuals galore, all making, almost, for good local color, but really looking rather out of place. It seemed more of a muddle than a story, too forced and not quite interesting enough.
       Nevertheless, Irving writes quite well (though he is not in peak form here), and since he keeps the stories coming throughout the novel there are enough entertaining bits to make a readable novel out of this. He does not get going very convincingly (he never seems to have figured out how to tell the story), but once one has gotten through the first 150 pages it starts to go quite smoothly. It is not a particularly good novel -- we expect better from the generally more rigorous Irving -- but it is an acceptable read.

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A Son of the Circus: Reviews: John Irving: Other books by John Irving under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction under review

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About the Author:

       John Winslow Irving, American author, born 1942. Born in Exeter, New Hampshire he graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy. Author of numerous very successful novels, he first achieved widespread recognition with The World according to Garp.

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