on March 27, 2004
In The 158-Pound Marriage the narrator, a writer of unsuccessful historical novels, recounts the story of his ménage à trois. When on holiday in Vienna, he falls in love with Utch (short for Utchka, which is Russian for calf). Not much later they are married and get two children. Their relationship seems free from problems until by some magical coincidence they meet Edith and Severin Winter. Without much ado both couples dive into an unknown adventure when they decide to try switching partner for one evening. At first this positively influences their marriages, but then the truth enters the scene as a fifth player. Suddenly trust seeps away and leaves them all alone with their bizarre foursome.
The 158-Pound Marriage is surely a black and ruthless book. And that is exactly what you would never expect from the author of The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany. Admittedly the novel starts with a crazy scene that only John Irving can dream up, but after the main characters are introduced the spirit of the story turns dark and moody. Irving keeps the irony alive, but gets hooked into the conflict between the two couples. Even the predominant playfulness between the sheets cannot lighten up the story. It drags the reader through a maze of moral questions and dilemma's.
The story is brilliantly written and again proof that John Irving is one of the greatest authors of our time. Personally I like the cheery and witty tone of his later novels (Marriage was his third novel) much more. This does not mean that they are not as deep and wicked as The 158-Pound Marriage, at the contrary, but they surely have less difficulties in keeping my attention focussed on the story.
on August 4, 2008
Irving, when Irving is good can write wonderful sentences. He can make us want more. But then, it goes on and on and you get the sick feeling that something is wrong. You can't put your finger on it exactly. The book isn't bad to speak of, quite good in the very first parts. Yet, there comes that nausea again as though the book is a flu. First the premise, then the analysis. Two couples decide to openly open their marriage. So there's switching. The story is told by one person and the omniscient narrator. Here come the problems. When the narrator tells the story and spends most of his time digging into the other male character, we begin to feel we've lost a sense of where this character stands. We don't feel, emphasis feel, what he should be or could be feeling in this loaded situation. Maybe Irving protects himself as writer from digging very deeply into this. His strength on the other hand is the attention to detail. He throws lots into the story, especially in back stories, and this is some of the most pleasurable reading. It's as though distance helps Irving to really see the scene. Over time, however, his strength becomes a weakness, the details don't move the story forward and the fact he's chosen perhaps controversial subject matter quickly becomes mundane. We shake our head and ask, just where is this tale taking us? Reviewers cannot get enough of comparing Irving to Dickens. This book is definitely not Dickensian in any respect. The story doesn't whip along, there is little if any tension, it continually flips back and forth in memory and current event. Even the writing style is not of Dickens. Where Dickens could tell is straight and fast, Irving continually overwrites. He beefs up every section to a muscular show but don't confuse this with amazing craft. He's solid but dull, in this book at least, and in others too, probably his main weakness. If you want to try it, go ahead. I don't find it is strongest work. The subject though, in the hands of a master like Bellow or Hemingway would just fly. If Irving's job was to make a story of wife swapping read like a stock ticker, he did his job. Don't expect more.
on September 4, 1998
John Irving is a mastermind for rich characters. From the get go, he engages the reader with the less than pleasing imagery of a young Austrian girl, Utchka, who experiences the torture and and murder of her family by Russians from inside the belly of a gutted-out cow. It kept me reading! By intertwining the disturbing pasts of two married couples as they embark on a menage a quatre, Irving leads you through the mindful manipualtions and selfishness that inevitably follow the couples in their quest for open sexuality...or is it? Extremely saucy, all characters are completely unique and interesting. Irving's use of the wrestling metaphors through the eyes of Severin Winter,the washed up wrestling coach, are completely obtainable to those,like myself, who are totally negligent of wrestling terms. And of course, like any long standing novel should, Irving leaves plenty of questions unanswered about marriage, fidelity, and the value of trust. This was my first introduction to Irving, mostly because "Garp" and "Owen Meany" were checked out at the Library. The 158-Pound Marriage truly lives up to his more well-known novels!
on February 12, 2004
It took over 18 months, but I finally got around to reading all of Irving's novels. In retrospect it would have made more sense to start with the first one (Setting Free the Bears) and move to the last one (The Fourth Hand), but it didn't work out that way. Maybe I'll have to do that someday.
Anyway, given that this was the last one I read, my perception of "158-Pound Marriage" suffers a little because I know that Irving went on to write much better books like "The Cider House Rules" (still my favorite), "World According to Garp", and "A Son of the Circus". I think if I had read Irving's books from first to last, I might have been discouraged from reading the later, better works.
For a book featuring a menege a quatre (or however it's spelled), "158-Pound Marriage" did not come off as especially erotic or exciting to me. If your idea of eroticism is making love on a wrestling mat, then I guess you could call it erotic, but I didn't find it especially alluring. Of the four parties, Utch (the narrator's wife) is the only one close to sympathetic and is the one hurt the most by the failed four-way relationship, while the others come off as selfish, ironic jerks, especially the unnamed narrator.
Since the story begins at an almost arbitrary place, it was hard for me to figure out why these two couples decided to become involved. I would think something like that--considered so taboo in society--would require a lot of thought, but they just seem to launch into it with little care. I never understood why Irving gave the couples each two children, because the kids are invisible for most of the story and that grown-ups would do this sort of thing with children around (sometimes while the kids are sleeping in the same house) is reprehensible and serves to make the adults even less sympathetic than they already are.
The relationship begins almost arbitrarily and so too does it end almost arbitrarily. One day Severin and his wife simply decide to pull the plug and that's that. There was a little bit about how Severin and his wife were growing apart and all that, but it seems to me that once you've committed yourself to such a love quadrangle, there would have to be some sort of impetus to make you stop and go cold turkey. It's not like I have any experience with it, though, so what do I know? ;-)
Anyway, one thing I have really grown tired of since reading all of Irvng's novels is Vienna. I've never been to the place or even seen much of it, but the place just annoys me because it's featured in the first 5 of Irving's books. (Setting Free the Bears through Hotel New Hampshire) By the time I got around to this book, it had really become tedious. So too did all the talk about wrestling, which becomes even more tiresome in Irving's memoirs. I'm glad the author finally grew out of the need to work it into EVERY novel.
Everyone who's read Irving's work has their favorites. Mine remains "The Cider House Rules", while my least favorite is "Fourth Hand". I would place "158-Pound Marriage" at about second-to-least favorite. I wouldn't recommend this novel, simply because the author has much better ones available. But if you're collecting the whole set, like me, then you'll want to read it just to say you did.
on March 5, 2002
If you count some of Irvings other works, this might mot be considered up to par with the rest. However, I strongly suggest this to anyone looking for a book with adventure, hijinks and mission fulfillment.
The mastery of this story, I think, is the way that the two 'periods' (or three) in the lead characters life run in a sometimes zig-zaggy line throughout. As the stroy progresses, you begin to see the links between the two, so As if the same lessons are being learned in different ways. It's great how it lines up in the end.
A fit of giggles is a sure fir gaurentee for the Irving fan, and the part-time fan will see the beginings of his later greatness in this work.
The character here is very well developed, in the ackward Irving sort of way. I have to admitt that there were times where I was led away from the real story and my faith of the autor waivered, but is was roped in by the end, and I'm True believer in the Water-Method (and its man).
on January 7, 2003
John Irving fans should not overlook this gem of a book, though it departs drastically from the style that Irving is known and loved for. While there is little of the over-the-top humor and element of the absurd that made him famous, the deep-felt humanity and compassion that fills his characters is here in abundance. This is certainly the leanest, most serious, and yes, the saddest of his many fine novels. It tackles a thorny and complex subject - the effect that a ménage a quatre has on the two couples involved - with honesty and grace. For one of his earlier works, this book shows a surprising level of maturity, both in the terse, precise prose and the nuanced, layered approach to the subject matter. Irving's exploration of human emotion and the consequences of our decisions and actions are remarkably reminiscent of similar work by Philip Roth and Richard Ford years later.
on July 11, 2001
"The 158 Pound Marriage" is another example of John Irving at his best. He masterfully explores the consequences of infidelity in a modern marriage through a story of two couples, each in love with another's spouse. Though the wrestling imagery can get tiresome after a while, it's a fitting theme for a book whose characters are wrestling with the choices they have made in their marriages. The characters are all well developed, and the non-linear plot flows with ease. The one warning I would give is not to pick up this book looking for another "Garp." There is, was, and will always be only one "Garp." Let "The 158 Pound Marriage" stand on its own merits and you will not be disappointed.
on July 12, 2003
One might say that about all of Irving's books (ok, maybe not the little part) but just about all of them have some redeeming qualities that make you overlook his tedious, heavy-handed style and reach for metaphors. However, I couldn't find them in this book.
Like all trashy novels, this was oddly compelling in a voyeuristic sort of way. But whenever I thought it would improve and become a creative and interesting character study, it headed further down some disgusting path (not just the sexual content). Some reviews describe this book as erotic - to me it was just lewd and gross. WHO would want to have sex with any of these people? or read 245 pages about them?
on September 28, 2002
This was a typical John Irving read, though there seemed to be a lot more sex in this book than others I've read. The plot centres on two couples that are each having some measure of marital problems. They embark on a special relationship, that's all I can say without giving away the plot. I doubt that it was the point of the book, but Irving doesn't come close to capturing the complexities of marriage. It's a light read about some people who get into a lot of twists and turns because of some of the mistakes that each couple has made in their marriage. It's written from the point of view from one of the men, a writer, and he's a very odd person.
on May 17, 1999
By "good," I mean it is gramatically correct, contains appropriate punctuation, etc. But hey! What book ISN'T "good", provided it has been in the hands of a copy editor or ten? I read this book only because it was bound into one hardcover which also contained _The Water Method Man_ and _Setting Free the Bears_. I am grateful to have read _Setting Free the Bears_ since I feel it is a masterfully told story. As for this one, though, it engaged me the way the enlarged print condensed books I find on the tables at hospitals and the dentist's office engage me. Don't waste your time. Floss your teeth instead.