First Line: A Prayer for Owen Meany

First Line: A Prayer for Owen Meany

For this week's First Line let's see what John Irving has to offer in A Prayer for Owen Meany:

"I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."

It's interesting coming to this first line after Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell last week.  In that case we had a short, subtle, straightforward sentence that was particularly good at setting the stage for tone and tempo.  It gave us some idea of setting and story, but for me, that wasn't it's primary purpose.

Here, however, we are thrown immediately into the story.  First of all, we know that our narrator (John, conveniently enough) will remember Owen, but not in a simple, reminiscing sort of way.  Instead, he is doomed to remember Owen.  The language here conveys a sense of inevitability or fate about the role Owen will play in John's life.

This idea is confirmed as John relays that Owen will be both the instrument of death for John's mother as well as the reason John believes in God and becomes a Christian.  Reading this immediately makes me want to continue with the book.  How was Owen the instrument of death for John's mother?  How can John forgive this and become a Christian thanks to Owen?  What happens that leads up to all this?

It's also interesting to compare this to last week because, where it would be easy to read the first line of Strange quickly and without much thought about how it is setting the stage for the rest of the book, Owen Meany begs for the reader to consider it more thoroughly.  Irving "spoils" what is to come because it is the journey to get there that is so fascinating in Owen Meany, not the events in and of themselves.

As you can see I think this is an excellent opening line, and upon looking at it for this post I wanted to start reading Owen Meany again.  For those who haven't read this before, though, what do you think?  Has it piqued your interest?  And for everyone, do you like when books give away a lot at the beginning in this way, or would you prefer they hold big plot elements until the very end, for a more grand reveal?


Christy on 02/11/2010 11:37 a.m.

I don't mind when plot points are revealed in the beginning, if it's done in the way of Owen Meany, for example (a book I started in high school but didn't finish). As you said, with a first sentence like that, you want to know the journey to those plot points, how they came to happen.

Sometimes it's possible for an author to be too coy in hiding things from the reader. I see this a lot when there are hints of a 'dark past' for a main character. Usually the reveal isn't worth all the previous dancing around.

Scott on 02/11/2010 1:19 p.m.

Agreed - my biggest complaint with <i>America, America</i> was how it kept referring to these events that changed the narrator's life, but when you discover what they were it was a huge let down. I remember thinking "Really? That's it?"

Scott on 02/13/2010 9:11 a.m.

Personally, I was satisfied with the big reveal in <i>Gateway</i>. Looking forward to hearing what you think.

Scott on 02/15/2010 9:10 a.m.

I also have to wonder if the Stephen King audience and the <i>Prayer for Owen Meany</i> audience have a lot of crossover.

Granted, I enjoy both, so maybe there's more than I would have thought?

Erin Leigh
Erin Leigh on 02/25/2010 12:38 p.m.

I read this book for a Beer&amp;Book Club my friends and I started one summer. I was horribly scared that <i>Owen Meany</i> would be horribly boring since I always had that prejudice of John Irving.

But that line killed all my preconceptions, and John Irving is now one of my favorite story tellers.

Scott on 02/25/2010 1:29 p.m.

I'm ashamed to say I haven't read much else (or maybe anything else? can't remember) by Irving. I think I'm afraid it won't be able to live up to <i>Owen Meany</i>...

I saw on your blog that you read <i>Cider House Rules</i> - would you recommend it?

Erin Leigh
Erin Leigh on 02/25/2010 2:32 p.m.

Yea, I would definately recommend <i>Cider House</i>! I thought Homer's progression as a character was just lovely. It was a very thought provoking read for me.

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