Well, it took me 614 rather painful pages to get here, but this is the best sentence in John Irving's A Son of the Circus:
"Dr. Daruwalla's awareness that the source of his conversion to Christianity was the love bite of a transsexual serial killer had further diminished the doctor's already declining religious zeal; that the toe biter had not been the ghost of the pilgrim who dismembered St. Francis Xavier was more than a little disappointing."
By saying that the reading was painful, I'm not saying that I hated the book: The story itself is rather fascinating. Like other books of Irving's I have read, this book is chock full of weird goodness including, but by no means limited to, thug dwarfs, circus freaks, prostitutes, gay geneticists, and a Bollywood movie star and his Jesuit priest-in-training identical twin. The narrator focuses on one main character: Farrokh Daruwalla, an Indian-born doctor who emigrates to Canada but is unable to resist returning to India every couple of years.
I had two main problems with the text as I was reading it, problems that would have induced me to toss the book aside if I were reading only for pleasure and not because the book is one of my contracted reads for the master's program. (Don't blame my mentor, I chose the darn thing!)
I loved the first sentence of the book:
"Usually, the dwarfs kept bringing him back -- back to the circus and back to India."
But after a few paragraphs, the book delves into a rather technical discussion of dwarfism that made me feel sleepy. This is probably why the book was in my house months before the master's program began and why I read a few pages then got distracted from the book. As I continued to read this time, I challenged myself to examine exactly what it was about the book that wasn't engaging me.
The first problem, in fact both problems, relate to the point of view. First, the protagonist is referred to in so many different ways, as well as other characters in the book, that it became almost distracting. The author refers to Farrokh Daruwalla as:
The esteemed doctor
The failed screenwriter
Often, this will switch in the same paragraph. One paragraph will use "Dr. Daruwalla" and "Farrokh." Then, the next three paragraphs, refer to "Farrokh" and the next paragraph calls him "the doctor." This wouldn't necessarily be so bad except that Farrokh Daruwalla is not the only doctor, Dr. Daruwalla, or screenwriter in the novel. I got so confused in places that I needed to flip back a couple of pages and start a scene over in order to figure out who was talking.
Adding to this confusion is the several cases of mistaken idenitity that take place: There are two Dr. Tatu's, a young man who becomes a young woman and later disguises his(her) identity, the afore-mentioned Bollywood star and his identical twin who comes to India unaware that he has a twin. Although, this theme adds to the circus-like atmosphere of the entire novel, at points it became so distracted that I had a difficult time forcing my way through the novel.
Since my novel has so many characters in the works, this novel serves to me as a warning to be careful with how I refer to the characters and to not let the story get away from me in the hands of all these people: I don't think it's a bad thing to have a huge cast of characters, but it's definitely something that makes the novel more difficult to navigate both for the reader and the author.
The other problem with A Son of the Circus is that the narrative distance was such that I didn't feel particularly emotionally engaged with any of the characters. The story is told from Farrokh Daruwalla's perspective, but the narrator knows much more than the doctor himself. Again, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I think with a huge cast of character's such as Irving's, one character needs to take the lead by bringing the reader right inside of his or her head. I think Irving was shooting for a deep, internal third person point of view, but the occasional comments by the narrator about the doctor pull the P.O.V. back and make it difficult to identify with the main character.
This is, of course, a personal preference, but it's something I need to consider as I write the first chapters of my own novel. There are many different approaches to a novel, but I need to find one that works for me first as a reader, then as a writer: Do I write as an author watching a scene unfold before me, or do I sink inside the head of one of my characters and watch through his or her eyes? How do I avoid having my reader be aware of me, the wizard directing the show from behind the curtains? This is definitely something to consider, because there were points in Irving's novel that I was all too aware of the author.
All said, this book provided an interesting read: the ending felt satisfying based on the rest of the novel, though the parts about the gay geneticist seemed almost forced, as if Irving had something to say about homosexuality and AIDS and this was the only book that would allow him to send that message. Irving did tie up all of the loose ends, which is necessary for me to enjoy a read, and all of the mysteries presented were eventually solved. I did have a minor panic in the last few pages, because it seemed as if Irving were preparing to off Dr. Daruwalla, but the good doctor survived, and so did I.