The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving is a novel about an odd family that follows the dream of it's father on a roller coaster ride in the hotel business. As in most of Irving's work, the characters are the cent
er-piece of the narrative. The novel relies very little on plot. The action stems from the complexity of character and the dynamic changes that they endure. It is this aspect of the novel that critics seem to give the most attention. The characters em
otions, desires, dreams, and fears are the things that either captivate or disgust the majority of reviewers. However, one way or the other, Irving's creation of character is the inevitable focus of any commentary on The Hotel New Hampshire.
The majority of reviews that I found on The Hotel New Hampshire are for the most part, negative. However there is a trend among critics of Irving's book to criticize with respect. Although many did not like the book, most of them do not pass over the op
portunity to compliment him in some way before criticizing his latest effort. This implies a wide range of respect for Irving's prior work as well as his style as a writer as a whole and many critics find a review of The Hotel New Hampshire an irresistib
le opportunity to flash-back to his other work leaving Irving somewhat of a victim of his own talent.
Although this novel is unique in many ways, it draws an easy comparison to other Irving novels published before it, especially The World According To Garp. According to James Atlas of The New York Times Book Review, Irving's earlier works do prefigure ce
rtain themes that he later explores in greater depth. However, he goes on to say, "they do not prepare the reader for the sheer abundance of Garp or for the superb display of narrative self-confidence with which the author directs his characters in their
vaudevillian turns." Atlas makes this statement in his review of The Hotel New Hampshire to criticize Irving's choice of narrative style through compliment, a common route taken by many other critics of Irving's work. He says, "For the sake of the aut
hor's career, such a performance should ideally be followed by a very different kind of book, one that would not constantly invite comparison with its remarkable predecessor. Irving obviously had other intentions, for he made it almost impossible for any
one familiar with Garp to read The Hotel New Hampshire without constant cross-referral to the former." Atlas uses compliment to criticize because he realizes Irving's narrative gifts even if he does not agree with certain choices and nuances of this par
ticular Irving work.
The distinct presence of character does not automatically inject a high level of emotion into this novel according to certain critics. I am blown away by the abundance of emotion laced throughout each character, even the most minor, in the story and feel
that each has his or her distinctly personal passions and pains. However this feeling is not shared by most critics. For example, Benjamin DeMott says, "The Hotel New Hampshire is rich from start to finish, in incongruous juxtapositions and it offers g
enuine pleasures. It is also an exceedingly dense and clever work. However I found a certain frailty in the book's emotional life: feelings such as terror, lust and resentment need powerful invocation to be persuasive." Once again we have a critic who
finds fault but first pays compliment. DeMott goes on to say that it is Irving's need to be clever as well as the density of all that he tries to tackle is what takes away from the emotion of the work. He says, "The author's charm and jokey off-handedn
ess -his very fascination with his eye for incongruity- conspire to muffle and miniaturize [the emotion]. Everything is a fairy tale."
Other critics use Irving's prior work to show the exceptional quality of The Hotel New Hampshire, however this type of review is far less common. Jack Beatty says, "Frankly, I hated Garp and I picked up the new novel expecting to hate it too. Instead I
liked it. Feeling made the difference. In Garp, it all flows back on Irving's alter ego; in The Hotel New Hampshire, it flows out, bringing a whole family to life on a wide current of care." In this case, Beatty praises exactly what DeMott criticizes,
emotion. He claims this book to be the more exceptionally emotional yet he still uses Irving's prior work as a springboard towards his commentary.
The critical attention given to Irving and his latest work tie in to the public persona of the author. He is prolific and popular even if his works are not always critical sensations. The way that the critics pinpoint positive aspects of Irving's style
in order to criticize him shows that there is a tremendous amount of his work that they do enjoy. The public enjoyed his work enough to place The Hotel New Hampshire on the best seller list of 1981 even though the book was not widely accepted by reviewer
s. This popularity as well as the public's dedication to his character-driven style of narrative lead to the film version of the book. It is not the type of novel that is conducive to a main stream, Hollywood blockbuster audience such as a John Grisham
or Tom Clancy novel. It is however more of an arthouse film. The film, released in 1986, was fairly successful at the box office when compared to other films of its minimal budget. This lead to a small resurgence in the book's popularity however not en
ough to garner much more critical attention aside from film reviews. Ironically, the film reviews may have been part of what made the film version a success. Although critics did not particularly like the novel, the majority of them loved the film. I t
hink a part of this comes from the fact that the action of the film comes with more of a balance than that of the book. Although it remains character driven and emotionally charged, the films director, Tony Richardson seems to give physicality to the emo
tion that perhaps critics felt was lacking in the novel. Critic Lawrence O'Toole said, "Watching The Hotel New Hampshire is like being caught in the middle of a traffic accident. So much happens so quickly that the action sweeps the viewer along. Tony
Richardson's brilliant adaptation of John Irving's dark and sentimental novel is a masterpiece of compression." After seeing the film version, I think that compression is the key word in this review. Richardson charges the film with the energy it needs
to match the pace of the book while condensing the action to a more manageable scope.
The Hotel New Hampshire was popular among the public upon its release in November of 1981 and then tapered off dramatically in the early months of 1982. Many other best sellers stay on the list for months and even years but not The Hotel New Hampshire.
It's reliance on character, quirky narrative and minimal emphasis on plot have a great deal to do with this and could be looked at as a possible statement about the American reader of popular fiction. Irving's book has death and sex, however they are mas
ked by his jovial characterizations and are not the focus of the narrative. These traits are some of the reasons for the quick drop from the best seller list. Some of the undeclared or unrecognized reasons for the books popularity and subsequent resurge
nce at the point of the film version release may stem from the transition from the attitudes in the late seventies to those beginning to emerge in the early eighties. Economics played an enormous role in the Reagan era which had begun just a short year b
efore the original publication of The Hotel New Hampshire. However, the financial world was still open enough to allow families and individuals to take chances with their investments. These factors may have contributed to Irving's decision to set the no
vel in the various hotels that the family attempts to run as well as the looseness of the characters attitudes towards exploration. They not only take risks financially but with things such as sex and lust. The public obviously saw something about this
family that intrigued them. Whether it was their own ability or inability to take financial and emotional risks or their difficulties in understanding the complexities of their own families, there is an abundance of attractive qualities to choose from in
The Hotel New Hampshire.
The book's popularity stems from many different sources and attitudes alive in the late seventies and early eighties. The film version however, rekindled some of that popularity in the mid-eighties. I think a part of what brought interest back to the st
ory was the enormous struggle for identity among young people during the middle to late years of this decade. The Hotel New Hampshire is built around the learning process of growing up and is accentuated by the intricate depth of Irving's characterizatio
n. Each of the characters is complex and struggles to figure out their own identity. This was a major theme of the nineteen-eighties that may have lead to the making of the film version as well as its moderate success.
John Irving's work is widely accepted among critics and the general public. Although The Hotel New Hampshire was not a critical success, his status as a writer propelled his book onto the best seller list. It is a crazy ride with a crazy family but what
makes it great, and what makes Irving's work great is his ability to see his reader's understanding of the craziness in us all.
Atlas, James New York Times Book Review
Atlas, James New York Times Book Review
DeMott, Benjamin Atlantic
DeMott, Benjamin Atlantic
Beatty, Jack New Republic
O'Toole, Lawrence MacLean's