I love to read books that my mom, friends and co-workers recommend. (I read an interesting blog post today about “the imitation game” but that’s a story for another time.)
Remember the last time my mom gave me a book to read? I was not disappointed. So when my mom handed me John Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries, I happily hefted it home and lined it up in my queue. But there’s a reason that it’s now mid-March and I’m just getting to writing this review – because it took me this long to finish it.
The book is long, detailed and intricate, like John Irving’s other novels. There is a lot of thought and meaning behind every character and every detail.
The story itself is about a writer, named Juan Diego, who is traveling to the Philippines, however most of the story takes place many years ago, when Juan Diego is 14 years old, growing up in a dump in Mexico City.
So let me back up. Present-day Juan Diego is traveling to the Philippines as an old man because he had promised an American draft-dodger that he would visit the American’s father’s grave. Present-day Juan Diego takes medication that makes him feel slow and tired, but he also is prescribed Viagra, just in case, because even though he isn’t married and really hasn’t seen anyone, like ever, he might want it. So throughout his excursion he is experimenting with his medications, which almost gives the book a trippy, high-on-something kind of feel. He drops into sleep often and dreams of his childhood. He enjoys these dreams and enjoys reliving his experiences in Mexico City.
As a 14-year-old growing up in a dump, Juan Diego is quite gifted. He reads books that were meant to be burned and he learns English. He lives with his sister with the dump boss who may or may not be his father. His mother is a prostitute and also works at the religious orphanage nearby. His maybe-father ran over his foot with a truck full of scrap, so the rest of Juan Diego’s life, he walks with a limp.
I never got the feeling that the dump was a bad place to grow up or that Juan Diego was angry about any event in his past. Juan Diego and his sister seemed to like it. They formed some kind of relationship with the priests who ran the orphanage, so they were cared for, no matter what happened to them. This also meant that religion played a big role in Juan Diego’s life and in the book.
Without giving too much away, the kids’ experiences led them to feel strongly against Catholicism, specifically the Jesuits. They met and hung out with a transvestite and a gay priest and an atheist orthopedic doctor. They joined the circus after their mother died. Juan Diego tried to be what I imagined was an equivalent to a high-wire tightrope walker. His sister could supposedly read minds, but no one could understand her when she spoke so Juan Diego had to translate everything she said. And eventually Juan Diego ended up living in Iowa, but I won’t give away the juicy details behind that move.
The weirdest part, in my opinion, was when present-day Juan Diego met two women (a mother and her daughter) on the plane to the Philippines, who literally wouldn’t leave him alone. They were fans of his writing, recognized him and then practically stalked him throughout his trip. Also he had sex with both of them. And did not regret it. Their obsession and presence throughout the story was weird to me and just added to the trippiness of the whole thing.
So you can see, it was a very interesting book, topic-wise. It covered everything from religion and LGBT and AIDS and politics to sex and family and education and science.
The book moved seamlessly from present-day to dream or flashback within one sentence, which makes it confusing for some readers, as my family told me.
Despite the fact that I plowed through the whole weird book, I did not like it. I think the story was there and the uniqueness of the plot and characters and setting, but the book was drawn out and difficult to get through. I usually fell asleep after just a page or two, which didn’t help my slow progress.
If you like John Irving’s novels and other authors like him, you might like this book. Otherwise, one star.
I’d love to hear from you! Did you read Avenue of Mysteries? What did you think?