I’m not sure what I thought of New Hampshire before I started reading it. Quintessential New England is probably what I thought: crisp autumns with warm-toned leaves, icy sidewalks on prep school campuses, and windy, wintry beaches.
Prior to this reading project, everything I knew about New Hampshire I had learned from John Irving novels and from a day trip to Portsmouth during the winter we lived in Maine. After reading beyond John Irving, though, I have a bit of a feel for the coast, the mill towns of the 1920s, and am reminded of Exeter Academy: the prep school for boys that makes appearances in nearly every Irving novel, and is the setting of A Separate Peace as well. I love a good New England boarding school setting.
Novel: A Prayer for Owen Meany
Author: John Irving, born Exeter, NH 1942
Setting: 1950s-1960s Gravesend, New Hampshire (based on Exeter)
I love John Irving and his flawed, dysfunctional, funny, and good characters. By good, I mean that as messed up as they are, they are ultimately good people who love deeply and with great loyalty.
A Prayer for Owen Meany is one of my top five favorite books. I re-read it for this project, and it held up. I still adore Owen Meany, and I am still in awe of the way John Irving can build a novel. He has several novels set in New Hampshire, including The Hotel New Hampshire and Last Night in Twisted River, but son of a granite worker in the granite state, Owen Meany may be the New Hampshirest of all. Only a New Hampshire native would be able to confirm.
We don’t enjoy giving directions in New Hampshire — we tend to think that if you don’t know where you’re going, you don’t belong where you are.
I love John Irving primarily for his characters, and Owen Meany is the best one of all. The narrator of his story makes an audacious claim in the first sentence of the book, and it is possibly this claim — and it’s fulfillment through the phenomenal construction of this book — that makes this book one of my favorites of all time:
I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice — not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God.
Novel: A Separate Peace
Author: John Knowles, 1945 graduate of Exeter Academy
Setting: Summer 1939, Exeter Academy, New Hampshire
What a beautiful, sad book about friendship and false security in a New Hampshire all-boys boarding school in the beginning of WWII — the summer of 1939 — when the boys of the story weren’t of age yet to go off to war.
Narrated by Gene (the smart one) about his friend Phineas (the athletic one), A Separate Peace takes place primarily during the summer session of school, when the seniors are preparing to go to war, and the normally rigid rules are relaxed for the summer for these boys who are still young and innocent and living in the safe, protected vitality of youth.
We were careless and wild, and I suppose we could be thought of as a sign of the life the war was being fought to preserve.
The friendship between Gene and Phineas has the world wondering if they are gay. Knowles says that if they were, he would have written it into the book. And it makes me think of how differently people view friendship between men — that if men are close and have a deep friendship — with anyone — they must be lovers.
But the closeness of Phineas and Gene reminds me of the deep friendships I have with the girlfriends of my teenage years, which were never suspect to anyone as being anything more than friendship. I wouldn’t give those friendships up for anything, and my girlfriends are one of the best parts of me, even still, at age 44. It makes me sad that if men have a close relationship — a real, deep, close, and loving relationship — with someone of any gender, then it must be sexual, they must be lovers. Society won’t accept it any other way, and that’s a true loss for men.
At any rate, I love this book, and I especially love Finny. He’s one of the most loveable characters I’ve ever come across. One of the genius things Knowles does with this book, through Gene, is to show how we project our own weaknesses and flaws onto others who are completely innocent of the thing we suspect them of, like when Gene thinks Finny is jealous of him for Gene’s good grades, when in fact Finny doesn’t give a fig about that. It is Gene who is jealous of Finny. Jealous enough to act impulsively in a way that robs Finny of the thing that is most important to him, and that is the thing that Gene is most jealous of.
Novel: Peyton Place
Author: Grace Metalious, born 1924 Manchester, NH
Setting: 1956 fictitious Peyton Place, New Hampshire
Maybe it was just because of “Place” in the title, but this book felt like a prime time soap opera, like the TV show Melrose Place. It felt like the author tried to think up every scandalous thing that might happen in a small community, then put it all in one book: murder, rape, incest, illegal abortion, abuse, assault on women, despicable characters getting their comeuppance (but not through the moral strength of others), and yet everyone loves the place they live, this little town of Peyton Place, and is fiercely loyal to and protective of it.
The author often refers to the ways of Northern New Englanders, but the behaviors she describes — provencialness, gossip, nosiness, turning the other way when they see something horrible happen to their neighbor — these characters seem like universal characters in every small town ever. I don’t feel like I know New Hampshire any better because of this book.
Novel: Sea Glass
Author: Anita Shreve, lived and died in NH
Setting: 1929 coastal New Hampshire
Sea Glass was better than Peyton Place for giving me a feel for New Hampshire: for working in the mills (which was a thing, apparently, in the 1920s-1930s in New Hampshire), the unions, the strikes, and more importantly (to me), the coast of New Hampshire, with its fog and empty winter beaches, and sea glass that washed up on the shore.
I wasn’t really sure of the point of the sea glass in the book — it’s the title, and the main character collects it, and her husband jeers at her for it — be what greater significance has it? I got the feeling the author just likes sea glass and wanted to include it somehow, which is totally fine. I like sea glass too, and its appearances in the book made me happy.
But there could be more to it than that. Perhaps the deeper purpose of the sea glass is that it is mysterious, scratched and worn, its sharp edges smoothed by the tumbling it endures in the turbulence of its existence. And it is unbreakable, like Honora, this story’s main character.