Book Review: Setting Free the Bears By John Irving
John Irving is an American writer best-known for The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany. Setting Free the Bears is his first novel and is set in Europe as opposed to New England. Hannes Gaff has failed his exam at university in Vienna. Distressed he goes to a motorcycle shop where he meets Siegfried Javotnik. Siggy convinces Gaff to buy a motorcycle together to adventure across Europe. Their adventure takes a side-turn though when Siggy becomes obsessed with letting loose the zoo animals in Vienna and Gaff becomes obsessed with a girl named Gallen.
Irving utilizes a storytelling technique I’ve always particularly enjoyed–a character finding a notebook and the character and reader reading that notebook together. Here Siggy’s voice is bookended by Gaff’s. I had a difficult time getting into the book and was frustrated with it at the end. It wasn’t until reflection that I realized I enjoyed Siggy’s story, but not Gaff’s.
Siggy is an excellent character. Through his notebook we see how his parents’ unconventional meeting and marriage as a result of uncontrollable war circumstances has made him the slightly crazy person he is today. Personally I think he is just misunderstood, which is why I had issues with Gaff worrying about going crazy like Siggy. Siggy isn’t crazy; he’s just unconventional.
Gaff, on the other hand, is not a well-rounded character. He is someone who I don’t understand and couldn’t relate to. Although his crush on Gallen is the catalyst for a key plot point, I actually felt that he had infinitely more feelings for Siggy. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it did make some plot points feel forced.
Overall, this is a typical 1960s generation book. Siggy and Gaff feel like the middle lost generation. Their parents were defined by the war, but they are defined by nothing. All that matters about their lives is their pre-histories–how their parents met and were impacted by the war. They are left meandering through history on a motorcycle attempting to figure out exactly how things turned out this way from the few clues the war-time people will let them have. Those who enjoy this theme of the 1960s will enjoy this book. Others who enjoy Irving’s writing style would be better off reading The World According to Garp.
3 out of 5 stars