CuT Book Club: The Cider House Rules

The Anti-Couric has been listening to the Slate Audio Book Club, and is anxiously awaiting her first trip to a CT Forum Book Club Event.  She is especially excited because it features her two favorite Silver Foxes. No, not George Clooney and Sean Connery. We’re talking about Colin McEnroe and John Irving. So she decided we should start our own book club, which basically means she looked up a few crappy reader’s guide questions about the only book both she and the Asian Persuasion had read by John Irving, and forced our little Asian friend to answer them completely from memory.

So behold the first installment of our really crappy book club, featuring CT Forum panelist John Irving’s The Cider House Rules.

The rules posted on the cider house wall aren’t read or understood by anyone living there except Mr. Rose, who makes — and breaks — his own set of rules. What point is John Irving making with the unread rules?

Anti-Couric: In the interest of full disclosure I have a confession to make. I love John Irving. I’m a sucker for a good story and characters I love. I’m not someone who is interested in Phillip Roth’s navel gazing or other tedious, darlings of MFA programs across the country. I should also tell you I picked this question because shortly after the movie came out, I had to explain this very point to my friend’s uncle over dinner.

This book is basically a pro-choice manifesto (yet another reason to love it). The rules pinned up on the wall in the cider house are, like the laws regarding abortion, completely irrelevant to the people whose lives they actually affect. The Cider House Rules are written by people who have no idea what life in the cider house is really like, and this is — like almost everything else in this book — a comment on the complete absurdity of laws restricting access to abortion.

Asian Persuasion: The entire book is about broken rules–not just the rules that are left unread by the illiterate apple pickers. Dr. Larch breaks the law by performing abortions because they don’t make sense to him — listening instead to his sense of compassion and morality. The laws made denying women the right to choose were not made by the women forced to follow them. Nor were they made by the doctors like him who were told the abide by them. In the same way, Mr. Rose and the workers disregard the cider house rules because they don’t see how they apply to them as they were made by white bosses. Just like Dr. Larch, they don’t think these rules make sense (even though things like smoking in bed are a fire hazard…it isn’t for the workers).

In both these situations, Irving is saying that rules don’t really matter–because they are often imposed by those who will never be affected by them or have to abide by them. At the end of the day, we have to maintain our own sense or morality and make our own rules to live by — be it for good or bad.

Dr. Larch makes the interesting statement that because women don’t legally have the right to choose, Homer Wells does not have a moral claim in choosing not to perform abortions. Do you find Larch’s argument compelling? Do you think Homer was ultimately convinced or that he needed an escape from Ocean View?

Asian Persuasion: I find Dr. Larch’s argument compelling in that, while women don’t have the right to choose, he also believes that he, as a man, does not get to usurp that right and decide for them — and neither does Homer, no matter his personal beliefs. As a woman, that makes an impact. After performing Rose’s abortion, I believe that while Homer is not “convinced” in that he maintains his pro-life views, he is convinced in that he returns to St. Cloud’s feeling that he must help women in such situations.

Anti-Couric: Dr. Larch sees what he does as a duty. He’s helping women who have nowhere to turn. He is, frankly, saving lives. In his own words, he’s “being of use.” Dr. Larch believes that Homer has a duty to help these women because he has the skills to do so, and eventually I think Homer comes to see things his way. In large part, Homer has had the luxury of not helping the women who come to St. Cloud for safe — but illegal — abortions because Dr. Larch was there to help them. Someone else was doing the hard work. But after Dr. Larch’s death Homer realizes he’s the only one who these vulnerable women can turn to, and so he returns to St. Cloud’s.

St. Cloud’s setting is grim, unadorned, and unhealthy, while Ocean View is healthy, wide open, and full of opportunities. In what ways do the settings of the orphanage and the orchards belie their effect on their residents? What did you make of Homer bringing the apple trees to St. Cloud’s?

Anti-Couric: Frankly, it’s been a long time since I read this book and I don’t remember Homer bringing any trees to St. Cloud’s. But this is kind of a stupid question, anyway. St. Cloud’s is a sad place where people have little no choice about how their lives turn out. Pretty much all it’s got going for it is an orphanage where a doctor illegally helps women obtain safe abortions (I’d move there!). Over in Ocean View Wally and Candy live beautiful, happy, blessed lives — while kids like poor Fuzzy Stone get to spend their childhoods in homemade bubbles thanks to the crappy air and shitty conditions in St. Cloud’s. While the rich people get to live a fruitful life, the orphans at St. Cloud’s wither away.

As a child Homer didn’t want to leave St. Cloud’s, but then he can’t wait to get out. And unlike most of the older kids, he actually does manage to leave the orphanage and build a new life in what seems like a picture perfect place. Eventually, though, Homer sees that the dark side of life can infiltrate even a bountiful place like Ocean View. When he returns to St. Cloud’s for good he — I assume — brings apple trees to try and spread some of the joy he’s known and bring part of that life back with him. He reminds them all that there is a bigger world out there.

Asian Persuasion: The settings are blatant examples of how the environment and upbringing that one has affects the opportunities and experiences afforded to them. Homer is brought up in a bleak orphanage, never attends high school, has never really been anywhere except his two failed adoptive homes, and doesn’t have a lot of hope of going anywhere else until Candy and Wally come along. Candy and Wally have had a world of opportunity open to them. When Homer brings the apple trees to the orphanage, it is implied that he is bringing new opportunities to the orphans there. There is an inkling of hope.

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