Until I Find You

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Overview

Until I Find You is the story of the actor Jack Burns – his life, loves, celebrity and astonishing search for the truth about his parents.

When he is four years old, Jack travels with his mother Alice, a tattoo artist, to several North Sea ports in search of his father, William Burns. From Copenhagen to Amsterdam, William, a brilliant church organist and profligate womanizer, is always a step ahead – has always just departed in a wave of ...

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Until I Find You

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Overview

Until I Find You is the story of the actor Jack Burns – his life, loves, celebrity and astonishing search for the truth about his parents.

When he is four years old, Jack travels with his mother Alice, a tattoo artist, to several North Sea ports in search of his father, William Burns. From Copenhagen to Amsterdam, William, a brilliant church organist and profligate womanizer, is always a step ahead – has always just departed in a wave of scandal, with a new tattoo somewhere on his body from a local master or “scratcher.”

Alice and Jack abandon their quest, and Jack is educated at schools in Canada and New England – including, tellingly, a girls’ school in Toronto. His real education consists of his relationships with older women – from Emma Oastler, who initiates him into erotic life, to the girls of St. Hilda’s, with whom he first appears on stage, to the abusive Mrs. Machado, whom he first meets when sent to learn wrestling at a local gym.

Too much happens in this expansive, eventful novel to possibly summarize it all. Emma and Jack move to Los Angeles, where Emma becomes a successful novelist and Jack a promising actor. A host of eccentric minor characters memorably come and go, including Jack’s hilariously confused teacher the Wurtz; Michelle Maher, the girlfriend he will never forget; and a precocious child Jack finds in the back of an Audi in a restaurant parking lot. We learn about tattoo addiction and movie cross-dressing, “sleeping in the needles” and the cure for cauliflower ears. And John Irving renders his protagonist’s unusual rise through Hollywood with the same vivid detail and range of emotions he gives to the organ music Jack hears as a child in European churches. This is an absorbing and moving book about obsession and loss, truth and storytelling, the signs we carry on us and inside us, the traces we can’t get rid of.

Jack has always lived in the shadow of his absent father. But as he grows older – and when his mother dies – he starts to doubt the portrait of his father’s character she painted for him when he was a child. This is the cue for a second journey around Europe in search of his father, from Edinburgh to Switzerland, towards a conclusion of great emotional force.

A melancholy tale of deception, Until I Find You is also a swaggering comic novel, a giant tapestry of life’s hopes. It is a masterpiece to compare with John Irving’s great novels, and restates the author’s claim to be considered the most glorious, comic, moving novelist at work today.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The publication of a John Irving novel is always a major literary event, but its magnitude shouldn't obscure the more simple pleasures. In his 11th work of fiction, Irving stakes out the story of actor Jack Burns, the son of Alice, a Toronto tattoo artist, and William, a runaway Edinburgh organist. Alice does not take William's disappearance lightly; with young Jack in tow, she travels from European seaport to seaport, searching unsuccessfully for her former mate. In Jack's subsequent life in Hollywood and elsewhere, he too remains a searcher.
The New Yorker
Irving’s vast novel recounts the life of an actor as he tries to find the father who abandoned him and to come to terms with the traumas of his youth: a mother who was an itinerant tattoo artist and occasional prostitute, schooling at an all-girls academy where he was tormented by older classmates, sexual molestation at the hands of a woman who had been a kind of nanny. The story gets off to an energetic start as he and his mother scamper through Scandanavian seaports looking for the father, but it quickly becomes bogged down by unnecessary detail. When we finally meet the father, now ailing, we get a clearer impression of his illness and his doctors than of the man himself. This curious absence is all the more disappointing as Irving has said that the novel is based on his own youth, but it’s unfortunately typical of a book in which the main characters seem two-dimensional.
Publishers Weekly
Actor Jack Burns seeks a sense of identity and father figures while accommodating a host of overbearing and elaborately dysfunctional women in Irving's latest sprawling novel (after The Fourth Hand). At the novel's onset (in 1969), four-year-old Jack is dragged by his mother, Alice, a Toronto-based tattoo artist, on a year-long search throughout northern Europe for William Burns, Jack's runaway father, a church organist and "ink addict." Back in Toronto, Alice enrolls Jack at the all-girls school St. Hilda's, where she mistakenly thinks he'll be "safe among the girls"; he later transfers to Redding, an all-boy's prep school in Maine. Jack survives a childhood remarkable for its relentless onslaught of sexual molestation at the hands of older girls and women to become a world-famous actor and Academy Award-winning screenwriter. Eventually, he retraces his childhood steps across Europe, in search of the truth about his father-a quest that also emerges as a journey toward normalcy. Though the incessant, graphic sexual abuse becomes gratuitous, Irving handles the novel's less seedy elements superbly: the earthy camaraderie of the tattoo parlors, the Hollywood glitz, Jack's developing emotional authenticity, his discovery of a half-sister and a moving reunion with his father. Agent, Janet Turnbull Irving. (July) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Jack Burns, child of a tattoo artist mother and a missing organist father, has spent his life searching. As a boy he and his mother traveled throughout northern Europe to find his father; as a young man, he sought love and acceptance through a series of relationships with older women. Later in life, when the truth about his absent father continues to elude him, Jack finds himself questioning even his own memories. Irving's 11th novel may disappoint longtime fans-this is a quieter, more contemplative journey than his previous works (e.g., The Cider House Rules), requiring some patience and reflection. Journeys take time, and Jack, whose setbacks tend to involve women and his own insecurities, has a long road ahead of him. Irving's strength has always been his characters, and this novel is rich with them: Jack himself; his best friend, Emma; his no-nonsense psychiatrist; his distant mother and fun-loving father; and his teachers, lovers, and, yes, even his childhood sexual predator all come alive to make this novel a rewarding and meaningful experience. Recommended for all public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 3/1/05.]-Kellie Gillespie, City of Mesa Lib., AZ Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
“As ever, Irving is at his best with the family relationships he creates. They are simultaneously touching and infuriating. It is with these relationships that Irving firmly grasps universal truths and puts a chokehold on his readers…. Irving’s descriptions are distressing to read, but they force the reader to relate to the characters in a way they would not in most works of fiction.”
Calgary Herald

“Bittersweet . . . moving.”
People

Until I Find You . . . cuts closer to the bone than any of [Irving’s] previous works.”
Ottawa Citizen

Praise for John Irving:

John Irving has received awards from the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation; he has won an O. Henry Award, a National Book Award and an Oscar.

“Irving’s novels are perceptive and precise reflections of the world around us.”
The Washington Post Book World

“John Irving is one of the very finest writers alive today.”
The Associated Press

“A serious artist of remarkable powers.”
Chicago Sun-Times

“Irving’s popularity is not hard to understand. His world is really the world according to nearly everyone.”
Time

“A premier storyteller, master of the tragicomic and among the first rank of contemporary novelists.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review

“[Irving’s] instincts are so basically sound, his talent for storytelling so bright and strong that he gets down to the truth of his time.
The New York Times Book Review

“John Irving is a writer of prodigious talent.”
Calgary Herald

John Irving is devoted to his people and his plots in a way that makes him unique among the most popular and widely read of the living American novelists. He has become his generation’s Dickens.”
NOW Magazine

“He is among the very best storytellers at work today. At the base of Irving’s own moral concerns is a rare and lasting regard for human kindness.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Praise for The Fourth Hand:
“A rich and deeply moving tale. . .Vintage Irving: A story of two very disparate people, and the strange ways we grow. . . . Irving’s novels are perceptive and precise reflections of the world around us.”
The Washington Post Book World

“Using comedy, satiric social commentary and his adroit ability to tell a good yarn, Irving proffers a sweet love story with the very serious underlying theme of human transformation.”
Ottawa Citizen

“John Irving is one of the very finest writers alive today.”
The Associated Press

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345479723
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/30/2006
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 848
  • Sales rank: 330,845
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

John Irving was born in New Hampshire. He studied at universities in America and Europe and published his first novel, Setting Free the Bears, at the age of twenty-six. The World According to Garp, published in 1978 to phenomenal acclaim, firmly established him as one of the most inventive and talented novelists in America.

During the 1980s John Irving wrote a series of absorbing and celebrated books: The Hotel New Hampshire, The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany. In these novels his originality and striking vision came brilliantly to the fore, along with his trademark subjects – as wide-ranging as feminism, religion, wrestling, sex and New England life.

More recent novels include the complex bestseller A Son of the Circus, the dark and funny novel A Widow for One Year and The Fourth Hand, a black comedy that was another popular success.

Several of John Irving’s novels have been made into films, and in 2000 he was awarded an Oscar for the screenplay for The Cider House Rules. He described the difficult, decade-long journey from page to screen in My Movie Business. He is also the author of Trying to Save Piggy Sneed and The Imaginary Girlfriend, memoirs of writing and wrestling.

In 1992, John Irving was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma. In 2001, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Vermont and Toronto.

Biography

It was as a struggling, withdrawn student at Phillips Exeter, the New Hampshire prep school where his stepfather taught Russian history, that John Irving discovered the two great loves of his life: writing and wrestling. Modestly, he attributes his success in both endeavors to dogged perseverance. "My life in wrestling was one-eighth talent and seven-eighths discipline," he confessed in his 1996 mini-memoir The Imaginary Girlfriend. "I believe that my life as a writer consists of one-eighth talent and seven-eighths discipline, too."

Certainly, patience and stamina have served Irving well -- in both wrestling (he competed until he was 34, coached well into his 40s, and was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1992) and writing. His first book, Setting Free the Bears, was published in 1968 to respectable reviews but sold poorly. Over the course of the next ten years, he wrote two more unsuccessful novels (The Water-Method Man and The 158-Pound Marriage).

Then, in 1978, Irving hit the jackpot with The World According to Garp, a freewheeling comic saga incorporating motifs he would revisit many times over -- feminism, adultery, violence, grotesquerie, and an overriding sense of impending doom. Garp received a National Book Award nomination and became an instant cult classic. It also paved the way for a string of bestsellers, including The Hotel New Hampshire, The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meaney, and The Fourth Hand, to name a few.

While none of his novels are strictly autobiographical, Irving has never denied that certain elements from his life have seeped into his books, most notably the pervading "presence" of his biological father, John Wallace Blunt, a man Irving never knew. Raised by his mother and a stepfather he loved dearly, Irving had denied for years any curiosity about his absent parent, but the figure of the missing father haunted his writing like a specter. In 2005, he laid the ghost to rest with the publication of Until I Find You, a searing story that took shape slowly and painfully over the better part of a decade. Writing the novel also allowed the author to wrestle with a closely guarded secret from his past -- just like the novel's protagonist Jack Burns, Irving was sexually abused as a preteen by an older woman. In an eerily timed coincidence, while he was crafting the novel, Irving was contacted by a man named Chris Blunt, who identified himself as the son of Irving's biological father. Twenty years younger than Irving, his half-brother told Irving that their father had died in 1995. Although Irving was devastated by the experience, he now feels as if he is able to turn the page and move on.

In addition to his novels, Irving has also written a collection of short stories and essays (1995's Trying to Save Piggy Sneed) and several screenplays, including his Oscar-winning adaptation of The Cider House Rules. He chronicled the experience of bringing his novel to the screen in the 1999 memoir My Movie Business.

Good To Know

  • Irving struggled in school with a learning disability that was probably undiagnosed dyslexia. Today, he considers it something of a blessing. Forced to read slowly, he savored each word and literally fell in love with language and literature.

  • In a 2001 interview with the now-defunct Book magazine, Irving confessed, "The characters in my novels, from the very first one, are always on some quixotic effort of attempting to control something that is uncontrollable -- some element of the world that is essentially random and out of control."

  • Although the results have been mixed at best, film versions have been made of several Irving novels, including The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, and The Cider House Rules, which won for Irving a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. In addition, the movie Simon Birch was loosely based on A Prayer for Owen Meaney, and the first third of Irving's novel A Widow for One Year became the acclaimed film The Door in the Floor.

  • One of Irving's great literary influences was Kurt Vonnegut, his teacher and mentor at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. The two writers remained close friends until Vonnegut's death in 2007.

  • Irving has two tattoos: a maple leaf (in honor of his Canadian wife) on his left shoulder, and the starting circle of a wrestling match on his right forearm.

  • The influence of Charles Dickens is evident in Irving's novels, sprawling epics with huge casts of colorful, eccentric characters and lots of complex plot points that crop up, disappear for hundreds of pages, then resurface unexpectedly. He writes voluminously and in great detail; he refuses to use a computer; and he begins at the end, writing the last sentence of each novel first. He describes himself as a craftsman and claims that he owes his success more to rewrites, ruthless editing, and infinite patience than to artistic genius.

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      1. Also Known As:
        John Wallace Blunt, Jr.
      2. Hometown:
        Vermont
      1. Date of Birth:
        March 2, 1942
      2. Place of Birth:
        Exeter, New Hampshire
      1. Education:
        B.A., University of New Hampshire, 1965; also studied at University of Vienna; M.F.A., Iowa Writers' Workshop, 1967

    Read an Excerpt

    Until I Find You

    A Novel
    By John Irving

    Random House

    Copyright © 2005 John Irving
    All right reserved.

    ISBN: 1-4000-6383-3


    Chapter One

    In the Care of Churchgoers and Old Girls

    According to his mother, Jack Burns was an actor before he was an actor, but Jack's most vivid memories of childhood were those moments when he felt compelled to hold his mother's hand. He wasn't acting then.

    Of course we don't remember much until we're four or five years old-and what we remember at that early age is very selective or incomplete, or even false. What Jack recalled as the first time he felt the need to reach for his mom's hand was probably the hundredth or two hundredth time.

    Preschool tests revealed that Jack Burns had a vocabulary beyond his years, which is not uncommon among only children accustomed to adult conversation-especially only children of single parents. But of greater significance, according to the tests, was Jack's capacity for consecutive memory, which, when he was three, was comparable to that of a nine-year-old. At four, his retention of detail and understanding of linear time were equal to an eleven-year-old's. (The details included, but were not limited to, such trivia as articles of clothing and the names of streets.)

    These test results were bewildering to Jack's mother, Alice, who considered him to be an inattentive child; in her view, Jack's propensity for daydreaming made him immature for his age.

    Nevertheless, in the fall of 1969, when Jack was four and had not yet started kindergarten, his mother walked with him to the corner of Pickthall and Hutchings Hill Road in Forest Hill, which was a nice neighborhood in Toronto. They were waiting for school to be let out, Alice explained, so that Jack could see the girls.

    St. Hilda's was then called "a church school for girls," from kindergarten through grade thirteen-at that time still in existence, in Canada-and Jack's mother had decided that this was where Jack would begin his schooling, although he was a boy. She waited to tell him of her decision until the main doors of the school opened, as if to greet them, and the girls streamed through in varying degrees of sullenness and exultation and prettiness and slouching disarray.

    "Next year," Alice announced, "St. Hilda's is going to admit boys. Only a very few boys, and only up to grade four."

    Jack couldn't move; he could barely breathe. Girls were passing him on all sides, some of them big and noisy, all of them in uniforms in those colors Jack Burns later came to believe he would wear to his grave-gray and maroon. The girls wore gray sweaters or maroon blazers over their white middy blouses.

    "They're going to admit you," Jack's mother told him. "I'm arranging it."

    "How?" he asked.

    "I'm still figuring that out," Alice replied.

    The girls wore gray pleated skirts with gray kneesocks, which Canadians called "knee-highs." It was Jack's first look at all those bare legs. He didn't yet understand how the girls were driven by some interior unrest to push their socks down to their ankles, or at least below their calves-despite the school rule that knee-highs should be worn knee-high.

    Jack Burns further observed that the girls didn't see him standing there, or they looked right through him. But there was one-an older girl with womanly hips and breasts, and lips as full as Alice's. She locked onto Jack's eyes, as if she were powerless to avert her gaze.

    At the age of four, Jack wasn't sure if he was the one who couldn't look away from her, or if she was the one who was trapped and couldn't look away from him. Whichever the case, her expression was so knowing that she frightened him. Perhaps she had seen what Jack would look like as an older boy, or a grown man, and what she saw in him riveted her with longing and desperation. (Or with fear and degradation, Jack Burns would one day conclude, because this same older girl suddenly looked away.)

    Jack and his mom went on standing in the sea of girls, until the girls' rides had come and gone, and those on foot had left not even the sound of their shoes behind, or their intimidating but stimulating laughter. However, there was still enough warmth in the early-fall air to hold their scent, which Jack reluctantly inhaled and confused with perfume. With most of the girls at St. Hilda's, it was not their perfume that lingered in the air; it was the smell of the girls themselves, which Jack Burns would never grow used to or take for granted. Not even by the time he left grade four.

    "But why am I going to school here?" Jack asked his mother, when the girls had gone. Some fallen leaves were all that remained in motion on the quiet street corner.

    "Because it's a good school," Alice answered. "And you'll be safe with the girls," she added.

    Jack must not have thought so, because he instantly reached for his mom's hand.

    In that fall of the year before Jack's admission to St. Hilda's, his mother was full of surprises. After showing him the uniformed girls, who would soon dominate his life, Alice announced that she would work her way through northern Europe in search of Jack's runaway dad. She knew the North Sea cities where he was most likely to be hiding from them; together they would hunt him down and confront him with his abandoned responsibilities. Jack Burns had often heard his mother refer to the two of them as his father's "abandoned responsibilities." But even at the age of four, Jack had come to the conclusion that his dad had left them for good-in Jack's case, before he was born.

    And when his mom said she would work her way through these foreign cities, Jack knew what her work was. Like her dad, Alice was a tattoo artist; tattooing was the only work she knew.

    In the North Sea cities on their itinerary, other tattooists would give Alice work. They knew she'd been apprenticed to her father, a well-known tattooer in Edinburgh-officially, in the Port of Leith-where Jack's mom had suffered the misfortune of meeting his dad. It was there he got her pregnant, and subsequently left her.

    In Alice's account, Jack's father sailed on the New Scotland, which docked in Halifax. When he was gainfully employed, he would send for her-or so he had promised. But Alice said she never heard from him-only of him. Before moving on from Halifax, Jack's dad had cut quite a swath.

    Born Callum Burns, Jack's father changed his first name to William when he was still in university. His father was named Alasdair, which William said was Scots enough for the whole family. In Edinburgh, at the time of his scandalous departure for Nova Scotia, William Burns had been an associate of the Royal College of Organists, which meant that he had a diploma in organ-playing in addition to his bachelor's in music. When he met Jack's mother, William was the organist at South Leith Parish Church; Alice was a choirgirl there.

    For an Edinburgh boy with upper-class pretensions and a good education-William Burns had gone to Heriot's before studying music at the University of Edinburgh-a first job playing the organ in lower-class Leith might have struck him as slumming. But Jack's dad liked to joke that the Church of Scotland paid better than the Scottish Episcopal Church. While William was an Episcopalian, he liked it just fine at the South Leith Parish, where it was said that eleven thousand souls were buried in the graveyard, although there were not more than three hundred gravestones.

    Gravestones for the poor were not permitted. But at night, Jack's mom told him, people brought the ashes of loved ones and scattered them through the fence of the graveyard. The thought of so many souls blowing around in the dark gave the boy nightmares, but that church-if only because of its graveyard-was a popular place, and Alice believed she had died and gone to Heaven when she started singing for William there.

    In South Leith Parish Church, the choir and the organ were behind the congregation. There were not more than twenty seats for the choir-the women in front, the men in back. For the duration of the sermon, William made a point of asking Alice to lean forward in the front row, so that he could see all of her. She wore a blue robe-"blue-jay blue," she told Jack-and a white collar. Jack's mom fell in love with his dad that April of 1964, when he first came to play the organ.

    "We were singing the hymns of the Resurrection," was how Alice put it, "and there were crocuses and daffodils in the graveyard." (Doubtless all those ashes that were secretly scattered there benefited the flowers.)

    Alice took the young organist, who was also her choirmaster, to meet her father. Her dad's tattoo parlor was called Persevere, which is the motto of the Port of Leith. It was William's first look at a tattoo shop, which was on either Mandelson Street or Jane Street. In those days, Jack's mom explained, there was a rail bridge across Leith Walk, joining Mandelson to Jane, but Jack could never remember on which street she said the tattoo parlor was. He just knew that they lived there, in the shop, under the rumble of the trains.

    His mother called this "sleeping in the needles"-a phrase from between the wars. "Sleeping in the needles" meant that, when times were tough, you slept in the tattoo parlor-you had nowhere else to live. But it was also what was said, on occasion, when a tattoo artist died-as Alice's father had-in the shop. Thus, by both definitions of the phrase, her dad had always slept in the needles.

    Alice's mother had died in childbirth, and her father-whom Jack never met-had raised her in the tattoo world. In Jack's eyes, his mom was unique among tattoo artists because she'd never been tattooed. Her dad had told her that she shouldn't get a tattoo until she was old enough to understand a few essential things about herself; he must have meant those things that would never change.

    "Like when I'm in my sixties or seventies," Jack's mom used to say to him, when she was still in her twenties. "You should get your first tattoo after I'm dead," she told him, which was her way of saying that he shouldn't even think about getting tattooed.

    Alice's dad took an instant dislike to William Burns, who got his first tattoo the day the two men met. The tattoo gripped his right thigh, where William could read it when he was sitting on the toilet-the opening notes to an Easter hymn he'd been rehearsing with Alice, the words to which began, "Christ the Lord is risen today." Without the words, you'd have to read music, and be sitting very close to Jack's father-perhaps on an adjacent toilet-to recognize the hymn.

    But then and there, upon giving the talented young organist his first tattoo, Alice's dad told her that William would surely become an "ink addict," a "collector"-meaning he was one of those guys who would never stop with the first tattoo, or with the first twenty tattoos. He would go on getting tattooed, until his body was a sheet of music and every inch of his skin was covered by a note-a dire prediction but one that failed to warn Alice away. The tattoo-crazy organist had already stolen her heart.

    But Jack Burns had heard most of this story by the time he was four. What came as a surprise, when his mother announced their upcoming European trip, was what she told him next: "If we don't find your father by this time next year, when you'll be starting school, we'll forget all about him and get on with our lives."

    Why this was such a shock was that, from Jack's earliest awareness that his father was missing-worse, that he had "absconded"-Jack and his mother had done a fair amount of looking for William Burns, and Jack had assumed they always would. The idea that they could "forget all about him" was more foreign to the boy than the proposed journey to northern Europe; nor had Jack known that, in his mom's opinion, his starting school was of such importance.

    She'd not finished school herself. Alice had long felt inferior to William's university education. William's parents were both elementary-school teachers who gave private piano lessons to children on the side, but they had a high regard for artistic tutelage of a more professional kind. In their estimation, it was beneath their son to play the organ at South Leith Parish Church-and not only because of the class friction that existed in those days between Edinburgh and Leith. (There were differences between the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Church of Scotland, too.)

    Alice's father was not a churchgoer of any kind. He'd sent Alice to church and choir practice to give her a life outside the tattoo parlor, never imagining that she would meet her ruin in the church and at choir practice-or that she would bring her unscrupulous seducer to the shop to be tattooed!

    It was William's parents who insisted that, although he was the principal organist for the South Leith Parish, he accept an offer to be the assistant organist at Old St. Paul's. What mattered to them was that Old St. Paul's was Scottish Episcopal-and it was in Edinburgh, not in Leith.

    What captivated William was the organ. He'd started piano lessons at six and had not touched an organ before he was nine, but at seven or eight he began to stick bits of paper above the piano keys-imagining they were organ stops. He'd already begun to dream about playing the organ, and the organ he dreamed about was the Father Willis at Old St. Paul's.

    If, in his parents' opinion, to be the assistant organist at Old St. Paul's was more prestigious than being the principal organist at South Leith Parish Church, William just wanted to get his hands on the Father Willis. In Old St. Paul's, Jack's mother told him, the acoustics were a contributing factor to the organ's fame. The boy would later wonder if she meant that almost any organ would have sounded good there, because of the reverberation time-that is, the time it takes for a sound to diminish by sixty decibels-being better than the organ.

    Alice remembered attending what she called "an organ marathon" at Old St. Paul's. Such an event must have been for fund-raising purposes-a twenty-four-hour organ concert, with a different organist performing every hour or half hour. Who played when was, of course, a hierarchical arrangement; the best musicians performed when they were most likely to be heard, the others at the more unsociable hours. Young William Burns got to play before midnight-if only a half hour before.

    (Continues...)



    Excerpted from Until I Find You by John Irving Copyright © 2005 by John Irving. Excerpted by permission.
    All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
    Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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    Reading Group Guide

    1. Jack Burns’s most vivid childhood memory is the moment of reaching for his mother’s hand. Why is this feeling so significant for Jack? Is there a similarly powerful memory from your own childhood that you can recall? Why has it stayed with you?

    2. “The trip to the North Sea with his mother had formed Jack Burns” (309). In what ways had the search for his father–which took Jack and Alice from Copenhagen’s tattoo parlors to Amsterdam’s red light district–shaped Jack’s character? Also, discuss how Jack’s perception of the odyssey changes over the course of the novel. If this trip “formed” him, how does the “revision” of the trip later in the novel “un-form” him?

    3. Describe Jack’s mother, Alice Stronach, and discuss her heartache and human failings. Did you feel sympathy for her? Anger? Both? In her own way, was Alice ever a good mother to Jack? Do you think she would have been a different mother, or woman, had William Burns chosen to stay with her?

    4. As a reader, you also may have felt subject to Alice’s deceptions; are you willing to forgive her? Is Jack?

    5. John Irving captures the peculiar, gritty, and fascinating world of tattooing with its eccentric heroes, history, and unique fraternity. What about this subculture surprised you most? Why do you think some people are addicted to being tattooed?

    6. Describe the image and significance of the broken heart tattoo on the cover of the novel. Do you think tattoos are for the fierce at heart, or for the sentimental? If you were ever to get a tattoo, what would you choose?

    7. In both positive and negative ways, women and girls have a profound impact on Jack Burns. How is the “sea of girls” at St. Hilda’s transformative for him? Describe Emma Oastler, and her peculiar relationship with Jack. Consider also Miss Wurtz, and Mrs. McQuat–the “Gray Ghost” who was “always the voice of Jack’s conscience” (330).

    8. As John Irving writes, “In this way, in increments both measurable and not, our childhood is stolen from us–not always in one momentous event but often in a series of small robberies, which add up to the same loss.” How is Jack slowly robbed of his childhood? Discuss Alice, Mrs. Oastler, and Mrs. Machado as “thieves” of Jack’s childhood. Do you think it is possible to have an innocent childhood today? How long does childhood last?

    9. Why does Jack Burns love performing? After working with Miss Wurtz, why does he come to the conclusion that “Life was not a stage; life was improv” (163)?

    10. Who is Jack’s “audience of one,” and how does the vision of this sole spectator affect his acting and, more generally, his life? In your own life, who would you choose to envision as your “audience of one”?

    11. Discuss the theme of sexuality in the novel, both in its positive and negative forms. How does Jack’s abuse haunt his later relationships with Michele and Claudia? Also, why does Jack feel most comfortable portraying women in film? Is Jack’s transvestism a way for him to control, or perhaps hide, his sexuality?

    12. Consider Jack’s reaction to Emma’s death. Why can’t he cry? Describe Emma’s hold on Jack, both in life–at St. Hilda’s, the Oastler household and the house on Entrada Drive– and in death, with her odd “gift” of the Slush-Pile Reader screenplay. Did Emma ultimately help Jack or hurt him? Do you think her motivations were selfless, or selfish? Finally, why does her death leave Jack feeling as though he “[doesn’t] know who he [is]” (431)?

    13. As Irving writes, “So much of what you think you remember is a lie” (532). After Alice’s death, when Jack embarks on his second trip to the North Sea ports, we learn along with him that much of what he remembers about his past is untrue. How did you feel, as a reader, to learn that Jack had been lied to, and that his memories (and our memory, as readers) were false? Discuss your reaction to the “revision” of Jack’s life, to the elusive nature of memory, and consider how perspective can change the entire truth of a story.

    14. Describe Jack’s reunion with his father. Were you surprised by William’s condition? Even though William was absent for many years, how did he manage to be very much involved in his son’s life?

    15. When does Jack finally stop “acting”? Describe the moment with Heather when he becomes “the real Jack Burns at last” (747). What brings him into himself for the first time? Have you ever had a moment like this, when your life suddenly clicked? When your sense of self became noticeably whole or true, even for an instance?

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    Customer Reviews

    Average Rating 4
    ( 57 )
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    See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 57 Customer Reviews
    • Anonymous

      Posted July 16, 2006

      Sad to see the old lions lose their bite

      I love John Irving. A Prayer for Owen Meany is one of the most compelling, intuitive and thoughtful novels ever penned. Until I Find You, on the other hand, is an old man's sexual fantasy run amok. The women characters are either flat, two-dimensional, nuts or simply incomprehensible. Jack himself is a dull blank slate. And the gratuitous sexual molestation strains credibility, good taste and interest. By the 50th time Emma took his 'little guy' into her hands and cooed at it I wanted to throw the book at the wall. John, you can do better.

      5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted December 12, 2005

      started well but faded

      I liked the first third of the book. The tattoo artists and tromping around Scandanavia i found great reading. But as Jack grew older i basically lost interest. Emma was the most interesting character but she died off early. I slogged through the rest of the book because i can't just stop reading a book, i force myself to finish. The Hollywood name dropping and Jack's success as a movie star just didn't do it for me. In the end i didn't care. I enjoyed Hotel New Hampshire, Owen Meany and Garp so i expected more.

      5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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    • Posted April 8, 2010

      more from this reviewer

      Like not love

      I enjoyed this book because I enjoy John Irving's writing style. The characters were vibrant and quirky as usual. My favorite character was William Burns because of his many layers. He is the mystery of this novel and I very much enjoyed meeting him finally. However, I didn't enjoy the plot all that much. The sexuality in this sometimes seemed far fetched. I can understand a few events happening to one character but everything was over the top. I liked the overall theme of how we all are performers in life and how it affects us but felt this novel fell a tad short of Irving's usual adventure. Expressing the latter, I must also reveal that this novel still falls under an epic novel and will take you for quite a ride. Keep an open mind.

      2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted January 18, 2006

      I have a son!

      I did not enjoy reading this book. That having been said, I still think it is a good book worth reading. There is something to be said for Irving's ability to envelope the reader into his worlds to the point that we empathize greatly with the characters involved. The ending brought the book back for me because of how the author articulated the father's feelings of joy that his son found him. I agree with several of the reviews I've read that spell out how unattached to Jack we feel throughout the course of the book. However, by the end of the book I felt like I could empathize with the relationship between Jack and his father upon finding each other. The entire book Jack is searching for something (his father, his identity) and at the end Irving provides a conclusion in which that something is found - but from the father's point of view. This was hard to understand during the course of reading the book because it seemed to drag and did not keep me at the edge of my seat like Owen Meany and Cider House did. Looking back, though, Jack's character is supposed to be detached because he himself does not know himself. This is an intelligent literary device that is overlooked as simple poor writing. I'm not sure Irving will ever top Owen Meany, but I look forward to every attempt of his to do so.

      2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted August 9, 2005

      Irving fan recognizes old friends .....

      Hester the molester, Jenny Fields, Garp, even a mention of Binky! And of course Ruth's voyeuristic tendencies with prostitutes. Bears and elephants and wrestlers, OH MY! It is always worth the five year wait for the next John Irving tale. I must say though, that this is the first time I've recognized characters from the past. It was a pleasant reminder of just how gifted Mr.Irving is and why some twenty years ago I fell in love with Garp. For those of you who have never read an Irving novel, get ready for a treat. For all the rest of you, be happy that the past five years are over!

      2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted July 30, 2005

      Doesn't disappoint

      I eagerly anticipate reading any of John Irving's novels and his latest certainly does not disappoint. The characters, as always, are flawed, yet endearingly so. The situations are at once heartbreaking and uplifting. Throughout the novel's pages, every emotion is evoked, leaving you feeling as if you've experienced the characters' joys and pains along with them. As far as the length, who wants to give up new friends quickly?

      2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted November 18, 2006

      amazing

      I think this is my favorite Irving. I literally cried, and laughed while reading it, there is something so emotionally raw, all-consuming in it. I am amazed by Irving's original voice, and dizzying talent as always, incredible.

      1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted August 26, 2005

      The Search for Understanding

      I've always enjoyed reading John Irving's novels with his eccentric, but caring characters and wildly implausible incidents that somehow seem both real and satisfying. Irving's humor, intelligence and compassion always insured an engaging experience. All of that is also true with this book, except that these events are more personal and less camoflauged. The author's deliberate vulnerability makes the intimacy painful to the reader. It's difficult to reccomend this book because it deals so thoroughly with child abuse-- sexual abuse, as well as abandonment, neglect and betrayal. Still, the writing is wonderful. The author's strategy in organizing the book has the story weaving in and out and back on itself. By adding new layers of experience and perspective, he transforms the scenes that he'd described earlier, changing the characters, the order, and even the consequences. The whole first half of the book (told in chronological order) is retold in the second half as if it were a puzzle being solved. It is as if the lighting on a familiar set were changed to reveal and highlight subtle, new aspects, redefining the scene. It's also very much about storytelling-- many kinds of storytelling: his purported memories, Emma's scary stories,later, her novels and the screenplay, his acting, his trans-gender roles, his mother's lies, his father's tatoos, his psychiatrist's theraputic journaling. There are as many layers as an onion. It'll take me a while longer to think about and understand it better. It's a wonderful book, but not an easy one to read.

      1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted January 9, 2013

      Gerrrrate!

      His best

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    • Anonymous

      Posted July 21, 2012

      Baffled by it

      I did not like this book at all and have really enjoyed Irvings other works. I have never written a review before but felt so strongly about how bad this book was that i had to do it. I kept hoping that it would get better as the book progressed but Jack became even more unlikable and uninteresting. Bssically the story revolved around his and everyone else,s obsession with his penis and though i thought there might be some underlying theme or story of value tucked away into the midst of the pages I never found one. I could not finish it. I practically paid someone to take it out of my house.

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    • Posted June 27, 2011

      Irving needs an editor

      Before one supposes I am going to bash Irving I would like to say I have been a life long fan of his. Additionally I enjoyed "Until I Find You.' But this is a long read - this book is a monster really. To be honest I bought this book (hardback) back when it was first published and I just could not make myself read it. The first portion of the book details (and I do mean details) the main character's travels through Europe with his mother who is in persuit of the child's father; a tatoo addicted, organ playing, seducer. The child goes to school in (where else) New England and becomes a (what else) wrestler. The book warms up near the middle and we get multi-dimensional secondary characters who are interesting to explore - but never the main character. As is typical of Irving novels, the main character is a dope and a bore. Overall it's an exploration of what really happened in his younger years - which all becomes apparent when he starts asking questions as an adult. This particular novel might be more of interest to someone who has a few Irving novels under their belt. If not, check out A Prayer for Owen Meany as it is much more entertaining (and one of my all time favorites).

      0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted November 27, 2006

      Another John Irving Treasure

      John Irving never ceases to amaze me. He is a genius story teller, and his writing is brilliant. With the main character, Jack, you will look through the eyes (and heart) of a 4-year old child, in a way that only John Irving could make happen. Follow Jack to adulthood, with all his disappointments and disillusions, his flaws and foibles. I laughed, I cried, I loved and I despised. John Irving has a deep understanding of human nature, and the unique ability to transfer that insight into wonderful stories and characters. He makes you look at the world around you, and the even more complex world INSIDE you. His novels are magic.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted August 22, 2005

      I'm so disappointed

      I await every new John Irving novel with eager anticipation, until this book I have never felt like the wait wasn't worth it. However, I just couldn't get into this story or make myself care about Jack and his mother, and the various other people who floated in an out of their lives. I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone, and I feel it was a waste of John Irvings normal level of talent.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted August 29, 2005

      Disappointed.

      Comparing Until I find you to A prayer for Owen Meany, Cider House Rules, Hotel New Hampshire and The World According to Garp may not be fair but that is the water mark that John Irving has set and Until I find you was not up to his normal standard. Usually John Irvings novels push it a bit too far but ultimately you say 'OK I will buy it'. I did not find myself saying that in Until I find you. I have seen comments where people felt that some of the incidents surrounding Jack approached porn. I did not feel that way. I thought it was just plain ridiculous.His character development didn't compare to earlier novels. I really didn't feel much for Jack. I know that was the point 'the actor' didn't have much of his own personality but I had trouble caring about what happened to him. My favorite character Emma didn't last and the other intriguing character William, you only got to know him for a short while towards the end of the book when he had already slipped. There was a hint of a possible relationship between Jack and the medicine Dr, but that was just left hanging. I will definitely read John Irvings next novel without question.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted August 14, 2005

      Vintage Irving with a hole in the heart

      The main character of 'Until I Find You,' a typically oversexed boy-man named Jack Burns, is the hole in the center of this lackluster and rather disappointing new novel by John Irving. While I initially thought that my problems with this book came from the uncomfortable and distracting proximity between Burns and Irving himself (who recently admitted to being raped by a woman at the age of 10), but after further consideration I think it's the third-act plot twist - the revelation that the verisimilitude of Jack Burns's memories, which populate the first half of this 900-page novel, is highly suspect. I'm puzzled at Irving's narrative decision here: why spend several hundred pages drawing an exquisite framework for a character (the scenes in both Toronto and Amsterdam are particularly engaging, and the character of Alice Burns, Jack's mother, is one of Irving's best) and then pulling the rug out underneath it? Despite his engaging trip through Europe and school years in Canada and New England, Jack Burns was never a truly interesting character - he was more of a cypher. And when we discover that this history is totally wrong, we're left with nothing. Irving does, however, deliver the goods in the final 200 pages, as Burns finally confronts his true past, and comes face to face with the father he truly never knew these moments are sublime. It's a nice ending, but at what cost?

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    • Anonymous

      Posted October 9, 2005

      Journey of a lost childhood

      Four year old Jack and his tattoo artist mother search for a father who abandoned his wife and son. If you think that's all there is here, read on your're in for a wild ride! Some may be turned off by the detailed sexual abuse of a child, but it explains Jack 's involvement with older women and his somewhat sketchy sex life. You can't help but feel sorry for Jack, especially his dependence on his mother who seems to be protective and possessive, but as the story progresses turns into the mother from hell. Irving's description of Jack as a child is sad and sweet, as if it were Irving's own child. The women in Jack's life leave a lot to be desired, even his beloved friend Emma. Yes, this book is a long journey (took me 5 days to read, and i read fast), but i think it's well worth it. The scenes between Jack and his father at the sanitorium in Zurich are both touching and funny. I was rooting for Jack all the way and loved the culmination of his long journey to find his father.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted July 26, 2005

      Touches the heart

      What can I say? I loved this book. I am the type of reader who doesn't normally read the mainstream stuff, but I am hooked on this author. He writes each of his novels like it was his first. I generally look for 1st time authors because their works are often times truly inspired. For a taste of what I mean try a 1st book by an author named Zintel. Title: A Year Since Yesterday. I wish you all happy reading.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted July 12, 2005

      Summer Reading With An Old Friend

      The review status for defining a book asks that we give stars to a title. When sitting to read John Irving books, the books title always opens a world of entertainment. The subjects touched upon in Irving's newest book 'Until I Find You' sets in motion an interesting 'journey' both emotionally, intellectually and comically. The release of Irving's book a week before the widely anticipated Harry Potter newest, sets in motion the model of our inherited modern world. There are those who define literature and fluff in different ways one enchants our imagination while the other stimulates our heart. Irving has a special place in the world of modern literature -- his themes are about the real world experiences of everyday people. These individuals no matter how ridiculous their circumstances represent a human conflict measured by hopes and dreams. Sit down America, turn off the television, find a safe place and read Until I Find You.

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    • Anonymous

      Posted July 19, 2005

      Great if a little overlong

      I like contemporary life novels with a real human feel and this ticked the boxes even if I needed a lot of coffee breaks at times.Very moving

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    • Anonymous

      Posted August 8, 2005

      Maybe a good book, but a BAD AUDIOBOOK

      I purchased the audio version of this book, but I'm afraid I had to stop after 8 of its 28 discs. The fault lies more in the narrator than in the book, I'm afraid. I wouldn't give the story itself 5 stars, but I'm sure I'd definitely give it more than 2 stars if I ever purchase the book and read it. The narrator just didn't make this story interesting. Normally, I'd listen to an audiobook through to the end--even if I wasn't completely enjoying it--wanting to give the novel itself a fair chance, but I just couldn't bear to listen to this one anymore. I've been a big fan of Irving's past novels, but since I've grown tired of his familiar use of similar European locations, prostitutes and wrestling, I have no problem with giving this novel a 'pass.' I still think THE CIDER HOUSE RULES is his best novel.

      0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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