"In this dirty-minded world, you are either someone's wife or someone's whore. And if you're neither people think there is something wrong with you...but there is nothing wrong with me."
To this day, I still think this is one of the best lines in a novel ever - uttered by the infamous Jenny Fields, mother of protagonist TS Garp.
This is the first John Irving book that I ever read, and the story will probably stick with me forever. It's one of the best examples of a character-driven novel that I can think of, where the plot is almost secondary to the story of the characters. You just want to find out what happens to them next.
In the book, Garp's mother Jenny becomes pregnant with him after a one-night stand with a comatose patient (she was a nurse) who died shortly afterwards. So Garp never met his father. In real life, Irving never got to know his biological father - his parents separated when he was a baby. He only found out about his father's death when he was contacted by one of his half-siblings five years after it happened.
When I talk about the rich depth and complexity of the characters in The World According to Garp, I'm not just talking about the protagonist. Sure, Garp was interesting...a bit of a dissolute womanising wreck, but he gets his comeuppance for that later on, in a really awful way. But I'm really speaking of the secondary characters, who are fascinating in their own right.
There's Jenny Fields, Garp's mother, who became a reluctant feminist icon after she decided to try her hand at writing an autobiography with the seriously awesome title of A Sexual Suspect, where the quote at the start of this post comes from. Then there's Roberta Muldoon, former football player turned transsexual, and Garp's wife Helen, the daughter of his old wrestling coach.
Each character is infinitely interesting and colourful, the kind of people you'd invite to tea and they'd still be hanging around well into the wee hours of the morning, regaling you with tales of their escapades.
Irving has written a lot of great books over the years, and some dreck - which is almost unavoidable when you have been dabbling with words for as long as he has. But Garp will, I think, stand as his greatest work of fiction, even better than Cider House Rules, which has sold more copies and arguably has more of an emotional core but not quite the same brilliance of characterisation.
"In the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases." Indeed!
Have you read The World According to Garp? What did you think of it?
* Every other week from now on, I'll be alternating book club titles with book recommendations. Next week's book recommendation is a new novel by Alaskan author Eowyn Ivey, The Snow Child - you'll also get a chance to win the book by commenting!