Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “Setting Free the Bears” as Want to Read:
Setting Free the Bears
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

Setting Free the Bears

3.29  ·  Rating details ·  8,968 Ratings  ·  255 Reviews
It is 1967 and two Viennese university students want to liberate the Vienna Zoo, as was done after World War II. But their good intentions have both comic and gruesome consequences, in this first novel written by a twenty-five year old John Irving, already a master storyteller.
Paperback, 304 pages
Published June 23rd 1997 by Ballantine Books (first published 1968)
More Details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about Setting Free the Bears, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about Setting Free the Bears

Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
Rating details
Sort: Default
Edward Lorn
Jan 07, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: paperbacks
Book #1 in my John Irving Challenge (2017), wherein I will attempt to read all of John Irving's novels in order of publication within one year.

I think this sums up my experience with this novel nicely: A character dies on page 90 and I did not realize he was dead until page 212.

Suffice it to say, I did not enjoy reading this book. I dug the first 90 pages, with their wacky happenstance and quirky characters, but after that, everything went to shit. The narrative becomes disjointed and a cogent
Like many people, I have read and enjoyed some of John Irving's novels. My particular favourites were: A Prayer for Owen Meany, The World According to Garp and A Son Of The Circus.

Perhaps not as well known is his debut novel, Setting Free the Bears.

Disaffected student Hannes Graff hooks up with free-wheeling motorcycle enthusiast Siegfried (Siggy) Javotnik and they embark on a picaresque jaunt across Austria, encountering many odd individuals, both human and otherwise, along the way. Javotnik h
Rebecca Foster
This was Irving’s debut, and although you can see seeds of the Dickensian characterization at which he excels in his best work, it was just not good overall. Neither Siggy nor Graff held my interest, and the dialogue feels stiff and unrealistic. There’s also some downright strange wording: “I could peek how the helmet nearly covered her eyes”; “the rain still puddled the courtyard”; “When his spongy ribs whomped the cobbles, the horse said, ‘Gnif!’” I couldn’t decide if this was Irving trying to ...more
It's been more than 20 years since I first read this book and I'm happy I did the re-read.

This is John Irving's debut novel, and right from the start it's clear he is a major talent. His inventiveness, his ability to engage the reader, and his ability to bring the reader into the characters' world is amazing.

Hannes and Siggy start out on a late-60's motorcycle road trip, leaving Vienna behind, but somewhat obsessed about the plight of the animals in the Vienna Zoo. After a few misadventures, Sig
Aug 18, 2009 rated it did not like it
I quit on this book. The first hundred pages, which involve an adventure through Austria by two young lads on a motorcycle is enjoyable, if a little vapid. The remaining 250 pages, which changes dramatically in tone and format, is excerpts from a diary of one of those two guys and is painfully dull to read. I struggled through 100+ pages of this, wanting to get back to the narrative but it didn't come and so I quit. There are too many good books around to waste your time on something as unremark ...more
Jan 03, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Autocertificazione di sana e robusta costituzione letteraria.

Salve a tutti.

Sono “Libertà per gli orsi”. Sì, il libro di Irving, proprio quello, sono io.

Sono approdato in casa di questa tipa con la testa un po’ per aria, che in Internet pretende di farsi chiamare Noce Moscata, quando io l’avrei chiamata invece Prezzemolo, data la continuità con cui me la trovo tra i piedi e la costanza con cui ha preteso negli ultimi giorni di essere accompagnata dappertutto: dal dentista, in una stanzetta d’atte
Erkki Kähkönen
Ok kirja moottoripyöristä.
Apr 08, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
The perversion and absurdity of this story could only possibly mean one thing. That is is an Irving tale.

'Setting Free the Bears' was entertaining for exactly the same reasons that I have enjoyed everything I have ever read by Irving since first picking up Owen Meany in highschool (middleschool?).

The long, rather drawn out tale of Siggy's 'pre-history' as found in his notebook is, well, rather long and drawn out. Though it is tough to get through, this point is acknowledged by the author as part
Dec 06, 2008 rated it did not like it
I had high hopes for this book because I've loved everything else by John Irving. This book is bad, really bad. It was so bad I couldn't even finish it.
Jim Ruiz
May 07, 2010 rated it really liked it
John Irving is my favorite author. This may be surprising to some because I am not what I consider the L.L. Bean, preppy type, in my opinion anyway. I decided to read his first book after giving up on his last one. I decided why not start at the very beginning and start over again.
John Irving has some reoccurring themes in his books, bears, accidents, strange sexual behavior. There is a good illustrative graph if you Wiki John Irving. This book is no exception except for one theme, which is MOT
Thomas Strömquist
Irving's first shows signs of great storytelling to come, but is awkward and silly at times. Recommended for completeists.
Mar 11, 2013 rated it did not like it
Varmaankin hieno klassikkoteos,mutta enpä ole typerämpää kirjaa lukenut pitkään aikaan.Kyllä meni aika hukkaan,ihan harmittaa.
Jun 19, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2017, my-read-books
This makes me sad to admit but John Irvings books have been such disappointments lately - and I used to consider him one of my favorite authors. The ones Ive read recently are boring, reading them feels like a chore instead of a gripping enjoyment. Setting Free the Bears has a similar style to Irvings later novels and it even features some of the elements (like bears) that seem to always come up in his stories. The history parts especially have some funny bits, but I found the women to be writte ...more
Setting Free the Bears is something of a story within a story. The main story involves two acquaintances, Siggy and Graff, who embark on a whimsical motorcycle road trip across Austria in the 1960s. Along the way, Siggy begins to hatch a scheme to free the animals housed (imprisoned) in Vienna's Heitzinger Zoo. The middle (and largest) section of the book is an almost complete diversion from the main story, and consists mostly of Siggy's journal entries describing his family's history in Austria ...more
Carmen Daza Márquez
Esta fue la primera novela que escribió y publicó John Irving y también sin duda uno de sus peores libros. Pero a diferencia de sus libros malos de solemnidad como La cuarta mano, Libertad para los osos peca sobre todo del exceso y la falta de mesura que caracterizará a su producción posterior pero que en este libro el autor aún no es capaz de controlar y convertir en materia literaria, de manera que termina ahogando toda la trama narrativa.

El tema de la excentricidad personal como única forma d
Oct 31, 2014 rated it it was ok
I first read this book when I was about 14. It seemed amazing back then, as it was an excursion into history and kinda-sorta sex and the road and motorcycles and that whole enthusiastic, Dickens-hipster thing. Yeah, daddy-o.

The problem about reading it with an older eye is that it hasn't aged particularly well. The text is clunky and overcomplex, the characters pretty one-dimensional - Gallen is basically a big-hipped R. Crumb figure with less intrigue - and the whole atmosphere is a little too
Adam O'leary
Jul 15, 2013 rated it liked it
I had never read a John Irving novel before, but I gathered that he was a writer of great repute and I decided where better to start than with his first book. Setting Free the Bears is a quirky and entertaining story with an interesting structure. Written as a series of small scenes that link together into a greater narrative, as told by the hero, Hannes Graff. Graff befriends a fellow oddball, Siegfried Javotnik, and the two go on a road trip and hatch a hair brained scheme to free the animals ...more
Aug 09, 2011 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: abandoned
I'm gutted! I love John Irving. He is in my top three authors, undoubtably. So,I was excited about reading this, his first novel. However, after plodding away at it for weeks with some determination, I've had to give up on it, and I NEVER abandon books! I don't know if I'm just not in the right frame of mind or if I've not set aside enough long sessions to sit and absorb myself in this book, but I just can't get on with it! To be honest, I can't quite figure out what is going on half the time! I ...more
Mar 09, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: fiction
For me the form of this novel is more interesting than the content; short scenes, almost vignettes with names like “Fine Tuning” and “The Beast Beneath Me” that are self-referential and also used as direct lines in earlier and later passages. Woven together. Brief (bad) poems appear, and also little half-truth phrases such as:

“Good habits are worth being fanatical about.”

The middle of book is interleafed notebooks of Siggy, one being “Highly Selective Autobiography” and other being “Zoo Watch”.
Mar 11, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: irving-john
Setting Free the Bears, by John Irving
good read. part I, meet siggy and graff and the beast, a motorcycle. they are in need of perpetual motion, perpetual emotion, living as they do w/o a war. this is the story of "How Hannes Graff was rendered inert."

too, others are rendered inert and then some. a fear of inertia, mayhap

"What worse awareness is there than to know there would have been a better outcome if you’d never done anything at all? That all small mammals would have been better off if you’
Dec 09, 2016 rated it liked it
I selected Setting Free the Bears as part of my local library's "20in2016" reading challenge. The category for this one was A Popular Author's First Book. John Irving has written several well-known books, my favorite being "A Prayer For Owen Meany."
This one, while showcasing Irving's ability to create quirky characters and an almost unbelievable story premise, didn't grab me like a couple others have. Siggy and Graff plot to ride off on a motorbike to the Vienna Zoo and set the animals free. Mos
May 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Loved this. So fun and whimsical. A wonderful escape, summer read. Like any John Irving book it's not free of tragedy, but it's one of his lighter books. Love the little details in there that you can't forget, like stealing salt shakers and silverware from a restaurant. I'd love to have this degree of freedom some time. I honestly can't remember if women in this book are characterized as more than "a tall glass of water" because it's been a while since I read it and I remember that bothering me ...more
Todd Charlton
I gave this horribly dull book over 150 pages. First there was an adventure on a motorbike which was okay but written with the first novel words of someone who will be great but not yet. Then came the politics of Austria just before WWII and the adventurer planning to set free the bears at a zoo. This part as compelling (the zoo part) but much shorter than the ramblings of an autobiography filled with boring prose and impossible names.
Had to put it down which I'm loath to do but life is too sho
Bertine Maas
Oct 30, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Schelmenroman, avonturenroman. Twee jongens gaan op een motor het avontuur tegemoet en ontwikkelen, anti-autoritair juist vanwege de naweeen van een tijdperk van autoriteit van Nazi-Oostenrijk, het plan om de dieren in een dierentuin los te gaan laten. Hun vrijheidsdrang en levenslust worden sprankelend en vol vertelplezier aangevoerd. Onbekommerd is het echter niet, met de wonden en alle doden van de oorlog nog vers in het geheugen. Overal "de rol van het niet goed met elkaar omgaan", waar Irvi ...more
Carol Harrison
Sep 11, 2017 rated it did not like it
I'll be plain--I hated this book. Yet I finished it, in hopes it might improve--after all, I've really enjoyed 4 of John Irving's other books, so how could this, his first novel, go that wrong? It was confusing, boring, unconvincing, and just not very interesting. I never did feel any interest in the narrator, or anyone else, for that matter. Thank goodness that Irving improved with practice!
Kayla Tornello
Mar 06, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: adult
I don't really know what to say about this book. It was well-written, but just so strange, especially at the end. The beginning was interesting, where the two main characters take a motorcycle trip through the Austrian countryside. The middle part, the diaries, were interesting but a bit stranger. Then the last part was just kind of crazy.
Dave Moyer
Feb 22, 2016 rated it liked it
Not among his best, but I have read them all and enjoy him when he is on.
Nora Savolainen
Nov 09, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: homeshelf
Not the best of Irving’s works but definitely interesting! If you like John Irving you should read it!
Adam Phillips
Jun 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Read this in Kiev in 1991. Even went to their zoo, which was so run down and sad. This book stuck with me.
Jul 17, 2017 rated it did not like it
Disappointing and disjointed. This was a very confused story. I was confused, the characters were confused and seemingly the author was confused. One of the worst books I have endured.
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »
  • Impossible Vacation
  • Rybí krev
  • Minnen
  • De aansprekers
  • Duluth
  • Gentleman's Relish
  • The Boxer: The True Story of Holocaust Survivor Harry Haft
  • Last Summer
  • Wanderlust: Real-Life Tales of Adventure and Romance
  • Delusions of Grandma
  • El viento de la Luna
  • Buzz
  • Wonders of a Godless World
  • The Empire of Isher: The Weapon Makers / The Weapon Shops of Isher
  • The Poorhouse Fair
  • Vyhnání Gerty Schnirch
  • Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism
  • Accordion Crimes
JOHN IRVING was born in Exeter, New Hampshire, in 1942. His first novel, Setting Free the Bears, was published in 1968, when he was twenty-six. He competed as a wrestler for twenty years, and coached wrestling until he was forty-seven.
Mr. Irving has been nominated for a National Book Award three times—winning once, in 1980, for his novel The World According to Garp. He received an O. Henry Award
More about John Irving

Fiction Deals

  • Echoes of Family
    $4.99 $1.99
  • Checking Out
    $4.99 $1.99
  • This Is the Story of You
    $13.99 $1.99
  • Outlaw
    $7.99 $1.99
  • Two Sisters
    $11.99 $1.99
  • Transit
    $9.99 $3.99
  • Class Mom
    $13.99 $2.99
  • Drawing Lessons
    $3.99 $1.99
  • Revolution 2020
    $3.99 $0.99
  • A General Theory of Oblivion
    $13.99 $1.99
  • Ya-Yas in Bloom (Ya Yas, #3)
    $9.99 $1.99
  • The Bloom Girls
    $3.99 $1.99
  • So B. It
    $6.74 $1.99
  • Island Beneath the Sea
    $10.49 $1.99
  • Petersburg
    $7.99 $1.99
  • Journey to the Center of the Earth
    $3.99 $1.99
  • Life is What You Make It: A Story of Love, Hope and How Determination Can Overcome Even Destiny
    $1.99 $0.99
  • As Good as True
    $4.99 $1.99
  • I Shall Be Near to You
    $9.99 $1.99
  • First Comes Love
    $11.99 $2.99
  • The Last Telegram
    $9.99 $2.99
  • The Spinning Heart: A Novel
    $11.99 $1.99
  • The Ocean Liner
    $4.99 $1.99
  • Every Day Is Mother's Day
    $7.99 $2.99
  • Big Breasts and Wide Hips
    $17.99 $1.99
  • Pope Joan
    $14.99 $1.99
  • Breakdown: A Love Story
    $3.99 $0.99
  • A Blaze of Glory (Civil War: 1861-1865, Western Theater, #1)
    $4.99 $1.99
  • The Silver Music Box (The Silver Music Box series Book 1)
    $4.99 $1.99
  • Peak
    $7.99 $1.99
  • Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1)
    $9.99 $3.99
  • Big Nate: In a Class by Himself
    $6.74 $1.99
  • The Forgotten Recipe (Amish Heirloom #1)
    $9.99 $1.99
  • Leaving (Bailey Flanigan, #1)
    $3.99 $0.99
  • The Light Years (Cazalet Chronicles, #1)
    $9.99 $2.99
  • The Shepherdess of Siena
    $3.99 $1.99
  • A Mother's Secret (Hearts of Lancaster Grand Hotel #2)
    $4.99 $1.99
  • Chasing Rainbows: A Novel
    $3.99 $1.99
  • The Perfect Son
    $4.49 $1.99
  • The Feathered Bone
    $6.99 $1.99
“Isn't it amazing? The Americans have so many good afterthoughts!” 4 likes
“What worse awareness is there than to know there would have been a better outcome if you'd never done anything at all?” 3 likes
More quotes…