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Avenue of Mysteries Hardcover – November 3, 2015
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An Amazon Best Book of November 2015: Juan Diego got his start in a Oaxacan dump, where he and his sister were self-described “dump kids.” Their mother Esperanza was a prostitute/cleaning woman, and in Avenue of Mysteries we revisit Esperanza, a pair of Jesuits who affected Juan Diego’s life, various circus members, Juan Diego, his sister, and others in a series of flashbacks. Having salvaged books in English and Spanish from the dump, Juan Diego taught himself to read and, ultimately, to write—he becomes a successful author, who eventually winds up in Iowa. Now in his fifties, he takes a trip to the Philippines, where he encounters a mother and her daughter, both of them fans, who insist on taking him around. If you’re a John Irving fan, some of the details to the story will sound familiar. It’s also likely you won’t have a problem with that. What I found most satisfying about Irving’s latest novel was a return of the feelings I remember from back when I first discovered his writing. This is an immersive read that delivers character, humor, and emotion. – Chris Schluep
“From the first page to the last, there is a goodness to this novel, a tenacious belief in love and the redemptive power of human connection, unfettered by institutions and conventions. This belief, combined with good old-fashioned storytelling, is surely why Irving is so often described as Dickensian. But John Irving is his own thing, and so is his new novel. Avenue of Mysteries is thoroughly modern, accessibly brainy, hilariously eccentric and beautifully human.” (The New York Times Book Review)
"An empathically imagined, masterfully told, and utterly transporting tale of transcendent sacrifice and perseverance, unlikely love, and profound mysteries." (Booklist (starred review))
“A richly detailed, imaginative and beautiful novel, with a series of events that seem equally bizarre and resoundingly universal.... It is a complex and many-layered novel that covers a lot of intellectual, moral and emotional ground, but in the end, it is the simplest, saddest and most wonderful tale of the human condition. It is about what we all fear: finding people to love, and then losing them, too.” (The Fort Worth Star-Telegram)
“A dream-steeped, enchanted, and often amusing tale.... Irving keeps this imaginative story, his aging novelist, his odd cast of characters, and his readers, moving on a trajectory toward collision in this unfailingly masterful narrative.” (USA Today)
“In its early pages especially, Avenue of Mysteries is laugh-out-loud funny.... Yet as funny as the new novel often is, Irving’s reconsideration of earlier themes seems more somber here. The novel explores questions of belief and disillusionment, chance and choice, the mundane and the miraculous. Avenue of Mysteries is a provocative and perplexing novel.” (Bookpage)
“Irving has always been a consummately convincing realist, in matters both great and small.... While writers of later generations seldom come close to achieving Irving’s levels of verisimilitude, his realism is transmogrified by his general whimsicality and by his attraction to baroque extrapolations of the absurd. This sort of ambition... is part of what makes Irving such a prodigious entertainer.... This novel is not autobiographical, but it does present an aging artist with a sacred wound, tremendous desire, and an endless appetite for wonder.” (The Boston Globe)
“Juan Diego’s memories of adolescence around 1970 in Oaxaca compose some of the most charming scenes that Irving has ever written. He’s still an unparalleled choreographer of outrageous calamities that exist somewhere between coincidence and fate.... Those conflicting currents of spirituality flowing through Avenue of Mysteries add to Irving’s rich exploration of faith in several earlier novels.” (Washington Post)
"A vivid writer about sex." (The New York Times)
“Like all of Irving’s novels, Avenue of Mysteries is about awakening — to the past, to hidden emotions, and to the truth and weight of trauma and childhood. Only this time, the narrative is dreamier and more ruminative.” (Minneapolis Star Tribune)
“The character is a captivating original; his tale includes humor, pathos, and acute observations. Once again, Irving charms by blending the fantastical with what is deeply, affectingly real.” (People)
“A wild and rollicking ride.... Irving plays delightful havoc with this colorful collection of humanity, beguiling us from start to finish.” (Seattle Times)
“This sprawling, imaginative tale about a writer whose life’s journey has all the qualities of a modern Dickens novel is vintage Irving.” (AARP Magazine)
"The outsize characters on the two vast alternating canvases Irving paints are more varied than the acts in a circus caravan.” (Philadelphia Inquirer)
“The novel is a remarkable feat... as Irving ignores the constraints of conventional fiction and tosses all of his ideas into his novelist’s blender and turns it on high.” (Dallas Morning News)
“Irving proves his prose still packs a punch in Avenue of Mysteries.... It’s good to see that this popular and insightful literary magician still has a few tricks up his sleeve.” (Portland Press Herald)
“Avenue of Mysteries is full of Irvingisms — the transvestite, the circus, the orphanage, the character who can’t speak, the car accident, the missing father, the weird Christianity. These elements are part of the fun for fans: hearing the familiar rhythm, finding the trademark components fit together in a novel way.” (Newsday)
“Delivers Irving’s typical blend of humor and tragedy.” (Houston Chronicle)
“Meaningfully dark and classically quirky.” (Las Vegas Weekly)
“Once again, Irving’s lyrical writing grabs readers from the first page.” (Library Journal)
"An entertaining, phantasmagoric look at the childhood that shaped a writer’s life.” (St. Louis Post Dispatch)
“The novel's tone moves easily from drama to comedy to tragedy, the perfect mix for a film adaptation someday. Casting will probably take time — these characters are so unique. Until then, lose yourself in this tale from one of America's pre-eminent storytellers.” (Associated Press)
“Have had a hard time putting down Avenue of Mysteries. A new John Irving novel is always like an unexpected gift.” (Bookreporter.com)
“Irving works his familiar themes—Catholicism, sex, death—with a light and assured touch.... A welcome return to form.” (Kirkus Reviews)
“In describing what Juan Diego goes through, Mr. Irving is something like a magician showing the audience how the rabbit actually pops out of the hat. Perhaps more than in any other of his books, Avenue of Mysteries demonstrates what is under the hood – what goes on in writers' minds.” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
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Top Customer Reviews
AVENUE OF MYSTERIES (a novel set in Mexico, the Philippines and, briefly, Iowa) he enters the waters with both feet -- actually, he immerses himself, AND his characters.
Like a strand of DNA, there are two intertwined, inseparable stories being told from the start: the first is that of the older (over 50) Juan Diego Guerrero -- successful, somewhat famous, writer (and sometime teacher at the Writers workshops in Iowa) -- who is travelling to the Philippines to fulfil a promise made to a kind, American (draft-dodging) stranger he met as an orphan in Mexico. His American doctor has recently prescribed both beta blockers (Lopressor) and sexual stimulants (Viagra), because the beta blockers make him tired. The combination of the two drugs interfere with Juan Diego's often vivid dreams, an essential tool for a writer of fiction. So he tends to NOT follow the prescribed dosage everyday. Thus, the weary writer -- a flight to the Philippines is a looong flight, not to mention the short jaunts when he arrives -- is prone to nod off, and dream of his past. Which brings us to the second, but inter-twined, strand of narrative.
As a boy in Mexico, Juan Diego grew up as an orphan who worked in the dumps of Oaxaca. In Mexico, there are entire families who make a living sorting things like copper and other recyclables from the huge dumps, and helping burn other parts of the refuge. In addition to sorting, Juan Diego also rescues many books (which make good fire material). Being much brighter than most, the young boy teaches himself to read in two languages(the books are in Spanish and English). Juan Diego is also handicapped, from an accident involving a truck, which left him with a crippled foot. And Juan Diego's sister, Lupe, has a strange malformation of the vocal chords that impairs her speech: only Juan Diego can understand her, so they stick together. Lupe is also clairvoyant: she can ALWAYS tell what someone is thinking, and she can see their past. Occasionally, she can see their future; but sometimes her visions of such aren't clear.
The pair are looked after by El Jefe (a man named Rivera, who is in charge of the Guerrero dump, and is a sort of pseudo father figure) and Brother Pepe, a Jesuit teacher who (after discovering Juan Diego's remarkable feat of self-education) manages to get the boy and his sister to one of the church orphanages (their mother, a gorgeous prostitute, works as a cleaning lady for Pepe's Catholic church during the day). But the two orphans are determined to try and have a hand in their own fates. Especially since life at the church orphanage isn't what they want -- neither orphan is much of believer when it comes to Catholicism (they have a tempestuous relationship with the Virgin Mary and the "Lady of Solitude, Guadalupe, a local saint).
And fate -- via the influences of two miserly, Catholic priests as well as an atheist doctor -- is determined to try and have it's way Juan Diego and Lupe. Because the pair end up -- for a time -- with a local circus, which features a lion tamer who abuses his authority (sleeping with the young girls who go to the circus for a chance at a life that DOESN'T involve prostitution or homelessness, though it means performing aerial acrobatics without a net).There is also (remember, Lupe can see vague visions of the future) the possibility of true danger for Juan Diego, who believes he can overcome the limitations of his handicap by taking to the air, as the first male circus aerialist (and it doesn't hurt that he finds the star "skywalker", Dolores, very beautiful).
All of this back story is told simultaneously with Juan Diego's present story, and hegira, to the Philippines, where the writer will meet a former writing student -- Clark French, a stolid believer in Catholicism -- and fulfil his long-ago promise. Along the way (from the start of his journey, in fact) Juan Diego is looked after and, well, satiated (sexually) by two women: Miriam and Dorothy (anyone paying attention may or may not see the duality in their relationship with Juan Diego -- he of the Mother Mary/Guadalupe upbringing). While the two women present themselves -- in the New York airport, while all three are waiting for their flight -- as fans of Juan Diego's writing, they quickly prove themselves to be something much more (after learning of his former teachers sexual relationships -- with BOTH women!-- during his travels, Clark French suggests they are succubi). Dorothy, the "daughter", is given to screaming orgasms that seem to be spoken in an old Aztec language. And Miriam moves so quickly she can spear a lizard with a salad fork before anyone blinks! Neither lady seems to cast any reflections.
A funny, moving, sometimes contentious (there are plenty of arguments between characters about the nature of the Catholic church, and how much it does or does not help its many followers) but always moving story, AVENUE OF MYSTERIES is, at heart, a tale about fate vs. free will, people struggling with their faith, and about trying to create a world wherein one has a sense of belonging, figuring out one's place in th world. As with most Irving novels, issues of faith, of nationality (a timely topic given America's obsession with immigration at the moment), sexuality, and creativity (specifically the creative habits and process of writers) are broached; but always with a sense of humor, and with great compassion. Like Garp, Juan Diego is a writer who has gained an amount of fame. Unlike Garp, Juan Diego isn't given to raging "against the machine" nearly 24 hours a day. Partly because Juan Diego is older -- and, of course, on beta blockers -- but partly because he is a more thoughtful, more laid back character than they young and impetuous Garp. But readers who enjoy Irving's fiction as much as I do will find themselves growing attached to the Orphan of Oaxaca, writer Juan Diego, not to mention his mind-reading sister Lupe (who, in her sometimes colourful speech patterns and big-hearted love of dogs is reminiscent of Franny, from THE HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE), Flor (the heart-of-gold hooker/transvestite) and Eduardo (a true believer who uses flagellation to purge himself; until he falls in love with Flor) and El Jefe, the almost-father of the orphan brother and sister.
For readers who have sometimes been flummoxed by Irving's fairly recent forays into literary experimentation (such as A SON OF THE CIRCUS, with it's intricate plot and narrative, or UNTIL IF FIND YOU and LAST NIGHT IN TWISTED RIVER, wherein Irving first started playing with the idea of memories and the past at greater length, or IN ONE PERSON, in which Irving truly embraced the idea of sexual outsiders, dealing with topics that made some uncomfortable), AVENUE OF MYSTERIES will feel like more familiar ground (yes the dual narrative might be a "bit" challenging to some, but since both narratives illuminate each other -- and feature those two mysterious women figures -- it will be worth the effort). For those long-time Irving readers who, like me, love 90-99 percent of everything he writes (yes, Irving has his fictional writer reference old books that sound like his own -- a nice tip of the hat to steadfast fans), AVENUE OF MYSTERIES will be a welcome, and long overdue, foray into the genre of magic realism (A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY doesn't count, since the narrative was told first person, and John Wheelwright could've been suffering from delusions). After all, THIS novel features a mind reader (Lupe) two women who are supernatural or otherworldly (Miriam and Dorothy) and, near the novel's end (during Juan Diego's sojourn to the Philippines), several ghosts.
And for all concerned, AVENUE OF MYSTERIES will prove to be funny, moving and ultimately thoughtful novel about how we choose to let fate and free will define our lives -- and everything that comes afterwards.
Despite this wonderful crazy quilt of characters, Irving runs into trouble with the novel’s structure. Juan Diego makes parallel pilgrimages, first to scatter his mother’s ashes, and later to visit the grave of a friend’s father in Manila. The literary device of having Juan Diego dream on and off about his young life severely interrupts the lively narrative of his younger years with his sister Lupe. The novel would have worked better if divided into two parts. Irving keeps telling us how important Juan’s relationship will be with Brother Eduardo, but we see little evidence of this; it’s almost as though Irving lost interest in the character or deleted a chapter. Juan’s adult years as an acclaimed author are relatively dull, except for meeting Miriam and Dorothy, the characters mentioned above. At the end of the book Juan Diego sits for an author interview, and Irving throws everything but the kitchen sink into the discussion: who wrote the Shakespearean works, Freud’s influence on authors (lots of penis references throughout the book), and mention of the 2011 shooting that injured Representative Gabrielle Giffords. A bizarre ending and a missed opportunity for what should have been something wonderful.
So I love the guy. Despite all of the obvious J Irving issues. I thought this book was unreadable. Loved the dialogue - clever and amusing, as always. However the story line is SO disjointed and frivolous as to be almost insulting. The storyline is so contrived. Irving needs someone to answer to. Where the heck is his editor?????? Sadly, this enormous talent has lost his way.