Book Review: The Fourth Hand by John Irving

John Irving’s novel “The Fourth Hand” revolves around the character Patrick Wallingford – an unusually attractive man but only a second-rate television news reporter who never seems to have gotten the really good stories. But he becomes a headline himself when a lion bites his hand off during the filming of a piece on a circus in India. After that incident, his career takes an unexpected turn, as does his overly-steamy sex-life. But when a hand surgeon offers to give him a hand transplant, his life gets turned upside-down because the donor hand has “strings attached” in more ways than one!

Anyone who saw the film “Return to Me” will know how eerie the idea of a donor’s relative being in contact with the recipient can be. However, that movie made it seem less creepy than it sounds, but Irving isn’t one to ever go the easy route, not by a long shot. No, Irving will always find the most absurd and unconventional path that one can possibly imagine. In this case, the donor’s wife wanting visiting rights of the hand – and what’s more, her thinking that getting pregnant by the recipient of her husband’s hand will help her finally have a baby by her own departed husband. See what I’m talking about – it’s a typical Irving quirky plot. Of course, there’s more to the story than that, but I think you get the general picture here.

As you can also see, Irving has – once again – given us a cast of characters that are … well … frankly, stranger than fiction – if one can say that about a book of fiction. Patrick Wallingford was actually the least bizarre of all the characters in this book – and he is supposed to be the main character. In fact, Irving has written him to be the one that you’ll remember the most. Unfortunately, this character is supposed to be so attractive that women throw themselves at him. However, readers may find it difficult to picture him as being all that good looking. This is probably because Irving has painted him as a type of person who doesn’t actually take charge of his life, but rather seems to be swept away by its events. That’s a sign of weakness, so while he may be physically attractive, this type of personality usually comes through – usually with a stupid, blank expression on his face – and for most women “stupid” doesn’t turn their heads. In this, it is almost as if Irving cheats the reader out of getting to ‘see’ the real Patrick Wallingford.

A more anomalous character would be Doris Clausen – the wife of Otto, whose hand is donated by Doris to Patrick for the transplant. What makes her so curious is the way she is attached (morbidly so, if not almost physically) to her dead husband’s hand. That attachment is probably part of the reason why Patrick finds her appealing, or could it be that she seems to be the only woman he’s ever met who isn’t at all sexually interested in him – but rather in the part of him that doesn’t originally belong to him! Once again Irving doesn’t give enough to go on about Doris to actually allow the reader to envision her as a real person might appear. This doesn’t mean that Irving doesn’t describe her. On the contrary, he is quite clear about that. But unfortunately, like with Patrick, Doris’ character doesn’t seem to click with the descriptions that Irving has given, and she ends up being a very blurred image throughout the book.

Next on our list is Dr. Zajac – the hand surgeon who is not only trying to help Patrick replace his hand, but also to promote himself professionally. Other reviewers of this book have found this character to be one of Irving’s most comic ever. However, while he was likeable, in an off-beat and humorous way, he seems to have been written as more of a sad person than a funny one. This could have been a good thing, but unfortunately, he wasn’t the type of character that readers get a great deal of empathy for, partially because of his secondary role in the novel. This means that while he seemed sad, one doesn’t really feel sorry enough for him, to actually sympathize with him. The other character that takes a role here is Mary, a co-worker of Patrick’s at the television station. She was probably the character one would find easiest to identify with – a hard-working career woman who also wants a family, even if it can’t be a conventional one. Mind you, while likable in some ways, she is also slightly one-noted, sometimes inane and occasionally desperate to the point of being annoying.

There was one role in this book that really will suck you in, and that was the part of … the donated hand! Sounds absurd, but readers might find they actually feel and see this hand much more vividly than any of the other ‘characters’ in this whole novel. In fact, the overall feeling about this hand was that Irving put more into the hand’s interaction with the rest of the story than anything else. Thing is, just how much does one want to get … attached … to an amputated appendage? The really astonishing thing is that this is where readers may actually start to feel some emotional connection to this story. So at least, on this level, this novel did succeed to a certain extent. Since the book is called “The Fourth Hand”, perhaps there is something in the title role of this book having a truly major part to play. And thankfully, Irving doesn’t step totally overboard by speaking to us as the hand itself.

All that said, usually character-driven stories are much more intriguing, and usually better written, than plot-driven stories. In this case the plot here is, in reality, not one that is all that unusual, if you boil it down to its absolute basics – that being: the trials of a broken man trying to make himself whole again (both metaphorically and literally, in this instance). While this could be made into an interesting book that might overcome flaws in the character development, unfortunately, the off-the-wall way that Irving presents this story-line puts it into the realm of almost the fantasy genre. While that might be fine for Lord of the Rings, we’re talking about a literary fiction book and not a fantasy novel, and so, as usual, the plot here just isn’t strong enough to pull the reader in.

But if a plot-driven story is less captivating than a character driven one, then the overall feeling of this novel was one of detachment (excuse the pun). There is no true emotional connection (sorry, yet again) to the ‘real’ characters in this book. Compared to those characters in “The Cider House Rules” or “A Prayer for Owen Meany”, it seems Irving he has lost his ability to make the reader care about his characters. And if you can’t care for the characters, then how can you care what happens to them? Of course, Owen Meany is arguably Irving’s masterpiece character, and anything that doesn’t meet that standard is going to be a disappointment. So while the book has some interesting bits in it, I cannot truly recommend this one, and can only give it three out of five stars.

You can also read this author’s review of John Irving’s book A Prayer for Owen Meany

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