Book Review: John Irving's 'Avenue of Mysteries'

Nov 12, 2015

Several of John Irving's novels have found success on the big screen as well as the bookstore shelf. Scott Southard gives us his take on whether the author's new novel "Avenue of Mysteries" is destined for the same success.


I’ve been a fan of John Irving ever since I was a teenager. After sneaking my dad’s copy of "The World According to Garp" off the shelf, I devoured it in secret. Some of Irving’s novels, like Garp and "A Prayer for Owen Meany" are works of genius that will outlive their author. Then, there are books that seem like they’re just markers between greater works to come. John Irving’s new novel "Avenue of Mysteries" is one of the latter.

Like Garp, this book follows the life of a writer. Juan Diego grew up impoverished in Mexico. He is the son of a prostitute and doesn’t know who his real father is. His nickname then was the Dump Reader. He would steal books before they were put in the flames with the rest of the garbage, and he would read everything.

Irving plays with magical realism in this book through three unique and captivating female characters. The first is Lupe. She is Juan Diego’s little sister and can read minds. She has a severe speech impediment, making her brother the only one who can understand her. Juan acts as her translator. Lupe tells him what everyone is thinking, and he decides what he will tell others and what he will keep secret.

Like most of Irving’s novels, it covers two different periods in time. Half of the novel focuses on the early life of Juan Diego and Lupe. It follows their time in the dump and a very questionable circus. The other half focuses on Juan Diego as a much older man.  A successful author now, he is traveling the world. It is during this trip that he meets Dorothy and Miriam, the other two mysterious women in the novel.

Miriam and Dorothy are mother and daughter, and they live on the road. They seem to know something about every country and every hotel. But there is something very off about the pair. They follow Juan Diego on his trip, and their intentions with him are never clear. Things get even more muddled as he slips in and out of relationships with both of them. Throughout this journey, Juan Diego’s heart medication plays with his mind and dreams. He flips back and forth between the two times in his life. He changes locations with nothing more than a nod or a blink.

For fans of Irving, there are a lot of gold nuggets to discover. Yes, there is a small reference to wrestling, but sadly no bears like in "The Hotel New Hampshire." And a transgender man plays an important part in the story like in Garp and the more recent "In One Person." I always enjoy Irving when he challenges himself and that is happening here. I’m not sure if "Avenue of Mysteries" will bring new readers to the fold of Irving fans, but it definitely reminded me, after so many years, why I’m still a fan of his writing.

Scott Southard is the author of the new novel "Permanent Spring Showers" and "A Jane Austen Daydream". You can follow his writing via his blog "The Musings and Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard" at sdsouthard.com.