Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Book Review: The Fourth Hand

A Fair Trade Book

Title: The Fourth Hand
Author: John Irving

Author's official, non-interactive web site:
Date: 2001
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 0-375-50627-6
Length: 313 pages
Quote: “What if the donor’s widow demands visitation rights?”
That, Irving tells us in the fact-based afterword, was the question his wife asked while they were watching a news story about an attempt to transplant a hand. Thinking about it led Irving to write The Fourth Hand, in which a fictional character gets a successful hand transplant. (So far, this has happened only in fiction.)
There’s not much complexity in the plot of this novel. The protagonist has been into one-night stands. The novelty of the widow who’s more interested in her late husband’s hand than in the body to which it is now attached catches his attention. In order to preserve some suspense about the outcome of this romance, all I’ll say is that the significance of the title, The Fourth Hand (the man counts the transplanted hand as his third) is more sentimental than ghoulish.

Along the way, there are many complaints about the news broadcasting industry, and that’s about all Irving has to tell us. He’s told us a lot of what he knows, believes, and feels in other novels; in this novel he seems to have been absorbing and reacting to research about organ transplants, and there’s a good deal of white space on the 313 pages. Most of the moral, ethical, philosophical, and psychological elements in this book are carefully understated and expressed in explicit sex scenes.
I’m tempted to wax censorious about the number of detailed sex scenes in this book. Instead, I’ll say what some of you have been longing for a censorious type to say: anybody can write down the details of who kissed whom where and who then touched what, but organizing such details in such a way that they tell readers more than the obvious about a character really is an art. I think writers who can do sex scenes as well as Irving could do “manners” scenes with equal skill if they tried; not that Irving could actually be Jane Austen, but who knows how close he could get to her standard. Writers who can’t do sex scenes as well as Irving, which means most writers, are hereby advised to try writing about forthright people who reveal their characters by saying what’s on their minds.
Men have traditionally underrated women’s novels because they didn’t feel that the women did male characters well. I can understand this reaction; I tend to avoid men’s novels because I don’t feel that men write female characters well. In this novel the female characters get more lines than the males, but although I can believe that this is the way women look to the shallow, spoiled protagonist, I can’t believe that it’s the way any living women are.

Nevertheless, this book is recommended to adult novel readers in search of a story that contains a believable romance but also contains something more.

You can probably find a cheap copy of this book--it sold well, and it's been out for a while--at any number of book sales and charity sales, possibly for a quarter, possibly for a dime, possibly as the extra book they throw in free if you buy a certain number, which is how I acquired the copy I owned at the time of writing. (I have since sold that copy.) If you buy The Fourth Hand online from me, you'll have to pay $5 for the book + $5 for shipping. (One $5 for shipping covers as many books as fit into one package.) This higher price allows us to send $1 to John Irving or a charity of his choice. If you're curious about the book and want to help us help living writers collect fair payment for what they've done, by all means buy The Fourth Hand here.