Synopses & Reviews
Just about everything in Endora, Iowa (pop. 1,091 and dwindling) is eating Gilbert Grape, a twenty-four-year-old grocery clerk who dreams only of leaving. His enormous mother, once the town sweetheart, has been eating nonstop ever since her husband's suicide, and the floor beneath her TV chair is threatening to cave in. Gilbert's long-suffering older sister, Amy, still mourns the death of Elvis, and his knockout younger sister has become hooked on makeup, boys, and Jesus -- in that order. But the biggest event on the horizon for all the Grapes is the eighteenth birthday of Gilbert's younger brother, Arnie, who is a living miracle just for having survived so long. As the Grapes gather in Endora, a mysterious beauty glides through town on a bicycle and rides circles around Gilbert, until he begins to see a new vision of his family and himself....
With this wry portrait of small-town Iowa -- and a young man's life at the crossroads -- Peter Hedges created a classic American novel "charged with sardonic intelligence" (Washington Post Book World).
The New York Times Completely original...a novel that reads like...a collaboration between Nathanael West and Garrison Keillor, or David Lynch and Grandma Moses.
The Atlantic Sometimes funny, sometimes sad...and always engaging.
Philadelphia Inquirer Touching....By the book's exhilaratingly luminous ending...we have already been mesmerized.
Publishers Weekly Wonderfully entertaining and amusing...goes down like a chocolate milkshake but boasts the sharpness and finesse of a complex wine....Like John Updike, Hedges invests an antihero's ordinary provincial life with theamatic meaning....
Publishers Weekly Hedges' ostensibly country-bumpkin-style tale sparkles with sophisticated literary devices and psychological insight....The colloquial narrative voice, dialogue, colorful cast of characters...are conveyed with appealing credibility....Hedges leaves readers demanding a sequel.
Washington Post Book World Hedges writes with energy and wit...charged with sardonic intelligence.
The New York Times Hedges' writing possesses a sincerity that directly engages the reader's sympathies. The result is a narrative that is alternately sad, funny and gruesome, a narrative that uses the story of this one unfortunate family to create a portrait of small town life that's frequently as affecting as Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, as disturbing and darkly surreal as Nathanael West's Dream Life of Balso Snell. At once the story of one young man's coming of age, and an elegy for those outsiders and misfits who find themselves sidetracked from the American Dream, What's Eating Gilbert Grape stands as a most auspicious debut.
Cedar Rapids Gazette Terrific...wonderfully entertaining...a literary delight....There's a bit of John Updike's Rabbit trilogy in this charming narrative, just as there are traces of Richard Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar. But mostly there's Peter Hedges, who grabs the reader early on with this tale....The pace of the narrative sweeps the reader along to a most compelling and poignant conclusion....Nuggets pop off the page with regularity and make this story come alive....What's Eating Gilbert Grape has the feel of simplicity, but you know you're reading something complex and artistically crafted. The book has the air of whimsy, but will grab you with fierce credibility. Hedges is a young author to be reckoned with.
Harry Crews What's Eating Gilbert Grape is a story that outruns the covers of the book in which it is contained. Once you read this story, it will be with you forever -- this place amd these people will live in your heart and in the blood it pumps. I am utterly dumbfounded when a first novel of this quality comes along. I send Peter Hedges the ultimate compliment one writer can send another: I'll surely read the next thing you write.
Philadelphia Inquirer A picture of tragedy painted in humor...Gilbert Grape is one of the breed of male narrators whose sweet, wry, endearing voices invest every failing with humor and every ordinary moment with a measure of worried perplexity bordering on awe....Gilbert's sexuality is subtly and tenderly evoked....[Hedges has fashioned] a world at once vast and finite....
About the Author
Peter Hedges, a novelist and playwright, grew up in West Des Moines, Iowa. His newest novel is An Ocean in Iowa. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children.
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide
The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for discussion for Peter Hedges's What's Eating Gilbert Grape?. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
- In the first chapter, Arnie Grape tells Gilbert, "You're getting littler and littler. You're shrinking." "Stupid people sometimes say the smartest things," Gilbert reflects. With this exchange, what themes does Peter Hedges begin to develop in his novel? How is Gilbert shrinking?
- Consider the nature of Gilbert's relationship with Becky alongside his relationship with Mrs. Carver. What do these characters mean to Gilbert? Do they present him with the same possibilities for escape, love, and healing? Explain.
- Remembered chiefly for his relentless "optimism," Albert Grape nevertheless hung himself in his basement. How might this irony persist in Gilbert's own life, particularly in his relationship with his boss, Mr. Lamson? Throughout the novel, what does Gilbert reveal to us about his father? What sort of legacy has Albert left his son?
- Unlike Amy and Gilbert, who have stayed behind to take care of Momma and Arnie, Larry and Janice have managed to escape, at least physically and geographically. What significance lies in Hedges' decision to make Janice an airline stewardess, a job that requires perpetual flight? Why has Larry all but cut himself off from his family?
- Who is Lance Dodge? What does his success represent to each of the novel's characters?
- What kind of person is Gilbert's younger sister Ellen? Discuss Hedges' use of dialogue to develop her character. What is the source of Ellen's hostility toward Gilbert? Why might the fact that Gilbert has done nothing since high school bother Ellen, and even frighten her?
- Critics have compared the narrative voice of Gilbert Grape to that of J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield. What similarities and differences exist between the two? Discuss other works of literature or film that echo the themes, characters, or tone of What's Eating Gilbert Grape (e.g.: Larry McMurtry's The Last Picture Show, Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, Don DeLillo's End Zone).
- On a final tour of the condemned elementary school, Becky hopes to help Gilbert "say goodbye." What comes of Gilbert's recollection of his second-grade trauma? And why do you suppose Hedges places this scene just after the one in which Gilbert witnesses Mr. Carver's adultery with a bewigged Melanie? How does this pair of scenes affect Gilbert? How does the novel unfold in the aftermath of these episodes?
- About Momma, Gilbert says, "She thought she was going to enjoy my hate. But it has broken her." Discuss the nature of Gilbert's relationship with his mother, who can't seem to look at Gilbert without seeing her dead husband's face.
- Over many bottles of beer -- and accompanied by the songs of Sinatra and Elvis -- the Grape children gather around Momma's body to perform a makeshift memorial service. What is happening here? Discuss the characters' tacit decision to burn the house down. In addition to their wish to avoid the embarrassment and humiliation of having all of Endora gather to watch Momma's body removed from the house by a crane, what might the destruction of the house represent to the Grapes?
- Faced with Momma's steady growth, dwarfed by Endora's barren landscape, and resentful of the invasion of corporate America in the form of the hulking Food Land and the prefab Burger Barn, Gilbert has long felt trapped and dissatisfied with his life. But as "the walls in Momma's room fall down in flames," What's Eating Gilbert Grape ends with an unexpected sense of contentment, offering an almost idyllic image of family togetherness: the Grape children huddled before the house as silent spectators. What might Hedges be suggesting here? Are the children liberated? What do you imagine happens to each character after the novel ends? With the house, the school building, and his mother all gone, can Gilbert finally stop "shrinking"? Will he see Becky again? Will he escape? Has he already escaped? Explain.
- Watch the Lasse HallstrÖm film adaptation of Hedges' novel and compare the two. How does the movie echo the book's themes? How does your reading group feel about the movie's ending?