Here, read the first sentence and see if you’re hooked:
“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.”
With A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving managed to write the rarest of books, a Christian novel that’s not the least bit inspirational. Within the story there is ample evidence of God’s influence in the characters’ lives, but at no point does anyone proselytize: Irving never suggests, even indirectly, that the reader adopt Christianity. And yet this is a very religious book in the sense that God plays a large role—and the main character himself is a Christ figure.
Heavy issues of religion, faith, and spirituality abound in Owen Meany—but in case one weighty topic per book isn’t enough for you, you’ll also get a healthy dose of politics. The story starts simply enough, in small-town 1950s New England, but by the latter half of the book, America is embroiled in Vietnam. Thoughts of war, duty, and personal responsibility occupy the the mind of the narrator, an American who moved to Canada duing the Vietnam War (though not, significantly, as a draft dodger).
With all these meaty issues, Owen Meany is, literally, thought-provoking. For days after I finished it I found myself, er, provoked by thoughts. I would be lying in bed, or taking a shower, or trying to concentrate on a different book, but I kept coming back to Owen Meany. “Wait!” I yelled at my cat as I was feeding her. “Did John Irving mean…?”
Most books with heavy themes are—how shall I say this delicately?—are not over-focused on plot. The Brothers Karamazov, my favorite novel ever, raises every philosophical question known to humankind, but it’s not what you’d call a fast read. Owen Meany, now—the story grabbed me from the get-go and didn’t let go till the very last page, at which point I put the book down and bawled my eyes out. What can I say? The characters grow on you.
Caveat reader: Owen Meany contains strong language and violence (I’m telling you, this is just not typical Christian fiction) and a peculiar strain of anti-Catholicism from one of the characters; I didn’t find the book to be anti-Catholic on the whole, but some readers may be upset by the prejudices of the guy who is, otherwise, a swell protagonist. And most importantly: If you react like I did, you’re looking forward to a protracted bout of histronics when you hit that last page.