Jack Burns, the protagonist of John Irving's 11th novel, Until I Find You, is a successful movie actor trained to focus on his audience of one, for him the father who left his mother before Jack was born. The novel traces Jack's quest to discover the true story of what happened between his parents, not what he thinks he remembers or what he's been told by his mother, a second-generation tattoo artist living in Toronto. Jack attends a formerly all-girls school where his father taught. There, he is abused by the older girls (older women will always define Jack's life) and he begins to act, often playing a woman (another recurring theme). People who knew his father, an organ-playing tattoo addict who looked exactly like Jack, seem to be waiting for the day when Jack's personality will resemble his, too. Because of this, Jack vows not to have children until he has proof his father had a child he didn't leave. He is a rich, famous actor but has no real relationships with women other than a longtime friend and his therapist.
This dense novel (by far Irving's longest) is dark in many places, dealing with sexual molestation, prostitution, the damage caused by the absence of a parent, death and Hollywood scandal and spanning Canada, the U.S., several North Sea countries and the intricately painted worlds of tattooing, organ music and acting. As in all of Irving's books, the characters are strikingly real in their flaws and lovability, and they have something to say to everyone about the way the stories we tell ourselves and the stories others tell us combine to make the truth of who we are.
This book is not a fast read, or an easy one, but Irving's fans have always proved up to a challenge. This story will not disappoint them. Sarah E. White is a writer and editor in Fayetteville, Arkansas.