Review

Until I Find You

by John Irving



John Irving's eleventh novel tells the story of actor Jack Burns,
whose search for his absent father ultimately leads him on a
journey to find himself. At the novel's opening, we see young Jack
and his tattoo artist mother, Alice, leave their native Toronto in
search of Jack's long-lost father, a church organist who is also an
"ink addict" --- a man who has become addicted to being tattooed.
Their search leads them through all the northern ports of Europe:
Copenhagen, Helsinki, and Amsterdam, to name but a few.

When the search proves fruitless, they return to Toronto where Jack
is enrolled in St. Hilda's, a parochial school for girls that just
started admitting boys. "You'll be safe with the girls…" his
mother tells young Jack. Soon after, he comes under the influence
of an older, aggressive student named Emma Oastler, who takes it
upon herself to school him in the ways of the world. At age ten,
because of his small stature and angelic face, the drama teacher
casts Jack in all her plays --- as the female lead. He becomes
quite adept at acting and it becomes a lifelong passion.

But there is a downside to all this female attention. Jack does not
know how to interact with boys --- namely, how to defend himself
against bullies. His mother signs him up for self-defense classes
at a local gym where he meets Mrs. Machado, another older woman,
and the two embark on an odd sexual affair of sorts. Strangely,
Irving does not portray young Jack as a victim. He writes, "Jack
Burns would miss those girls, those so-called older women. Even the
ones who had molested him. (Sometimes especially the ones
who had molested him!)"

Irving, like his lead character, had a sexual relationship with an
older woman when he was 11, and has commented that he "like
Jack…would never say that he was abused or molested." These
events come to symbolize, both literally and figuratively, Jack's
loss of innocence. So the difficult issues at work here are ones
the author himself is struggling with, and in his capable hands
they are made a little easier to digest.

After beginning an illicit relationship of her own, Jack's mother
ships him off to an all-boys school in Maine, where he continues to
excel in drama. Being able to play the female lead at an all-boys'
school can come in extremely handy. In playing these many parts,
Jack feels like he will better understand women and what they
desire. He continues on to the University of New Hampshire, where
he maintains the most normal relationship of his life with a coed
named Claudia. (But in Irving's world, "normal" means "boring" and
the relationship fizzles after a few years.)

After graduation, he follows his dream (and best friend Emma) to
Los Angeles, where his first acting job is as a crossdresser in a
porn film. He gradually moves on to more mainstream movies but
still doesn't feel totally fulfilled. He thinks back to the search
for his missing father and decides he must find out what really
happened.

More instrumental to Jack's development than his missing father,
and the key theme in the novel, are the several relationships he
has with older women --- relationships that, for better or worse,
shape his life forever. Irving has never shied away from difficult
themes in his novels --- abortion, rape, even incest --- and UNTIL
I FIND YOU is no different. By the time Jack is ten years old, he
already has been molested by an older female schoolmate as well as
by an older woman who is supposed to be caring for him. These
events do not hinder Jack, but rather they instill in him a certain
fascination and appreciation of women that stays with him
throughout his life.

Though not Irving's strongest novel, UNTIL I FIND YOU certainly
seems to be his most personal. Like Jack Burns, Irving himself did
not know his biological father. He was born John Wallace Blount in
1942 and his father left shortly after he was born. His mother
later married Colin Irving in 1948, and young John was adopted and
renamed after his stepfather --- the only father he ever knew.
Also, Irving recently discovered that his biological father
suffered from mental illness, much like the character of William,
the ink addict. (Sadly, his father died before he could meet him,
but he learned he has younger siblings from his father's second
marriage.)

Absentee fathers and illicit sexual relationships are themes that
Irving has touched on time and time again, but never quite so
personally as in this novel. At over 800 pages, it's also his
longest book to date, as he deftly displays the complexities of
each relationship. In UNTIL I FIND YOU, Irving has crafted a
sexually charged, somewhat wanton, picaresque read.

Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on January 24, 2011

Until I Find You
by John Irving

  • Publication Date: July 12, 2005
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 848 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 1400063833
  • ISBN-13: 9781400063833