In One Person by John Irving
Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.
Irving is known for his bold approach to sexuality and the social/familial “other.” This latest is no exception to that well-established reputation. Meet William Dean Abbott, a teenage boy with a speech impediment. And meet the first love of his life, Miss Frost, the town library. William (or Bill, or Billy, depending on who we’re talking to) develops at a young age a love for reading and writing – the answer to that primordial question “What do you want to be when you grow up,” is, for Billy, “A Writer.” He divulges this secret to just one person, Miss Frost. It’s no wonder that a boy who loves to read and write might develop a crush on the town librarian, an attractive middle-aged woman. Except, there might be quite a bit more to Miss Frost than meets the eye. The story is essentially a fictional memoir, with Billy as narrator looking back on his life and works. It takes us along Billy’s journey from boyhood to manhood and into old age. We watch as he comes to terms with and explores his bisexuality and particular interest in transsexuals. Along the way, the reader is exposed to a variety of Billy’s friends, family members, and lovers – some male, some female, and some transgendered. There are marriages and divorces, deaths and rebirths, supportive folks and terribly antagonistic ones.
3 – Characters well-developed.
The characters in this book are one of its greatest charms and, simultaneously, one of its greatest issues. While one can expect, from Irving, a blunt and over-the-top approach to any sensitive topic (in this case, bisexual & transgender people), what I found disturbing was the overabundance of both. Billy, for instance, is a bisexual who finds himself attracted primarily to transgender women (“the best of both worlds”). As it turns out, Billy’s father just happens to be gay – the effeminate kind, and Billy’s grandfather also thoroughly enjoys dressing up as a woman. Billy’s mother, too, has sexual peculiarities of her own, though I will leave those for the reader to discover, since they are a particularly interesting aspect of the back-story which is revealed later in the book (it’s not the biggest mystery in the world, but it’s fun to let it unfold naturally). One could say this might just be an odd family, but considering Billy’s best friend, Elaine, their mutual love interest, Jacques, others of their schoolmates (revealed later in the book) and the town librarian are all either bisexual, gay, or transgender – well, maybe there’s something in the water in First Sister, Vermont! The plenitude of sexually “other” characters was not wholly believable and, for me, even detracted from Billy’s journey a bit (the main theme seemed to be about a bisexual writer calling for tolerance in a world of normalcy, yet most elements of his world, with the exception of a few people whose negativity seems less than bothersome to Billy, are largely the “other” world rather than the “standard” – so where is the conflict?). That gripe aside, the majority of the characters are more than interesting – as Irving’s characters usually are. There are a plethora of personalities, from the butch lesbian to the effeminate old man, to the teenage boy trying to figure out what he is. There are overbearing mothers, alcoholic uncles, and hilarious foreigners who can’t pronounce anything right, especially when they’re excited. Although one might find it hard to believe that virtually every person Billy meets could actually be in some way queer, the journey itself and Billy’s interaction with all these people are still worth the ride.
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.
As with characterization, the overall experience with Irving’s prose was positive, but there were some elements which irked me, two in particular. First, the narrator had a penchant for repetition. He would re-tell certain parts of the story multiple times, like an old man reminiscing with his friends or grandchildren about life-gone-by, sometimes forgetting that he had already told parts of the story twenty minutes ago. The second issue was his tendency to skip around in the timeline. The narrator is writing this as a memoir, looking back fifty or sixty years, but rather than following a clear trajectory through boyhood, the teenage years, manhood, etc., he often skips around so that one moment he is a college student in Europe, and the next he is a boy again, getting ready for his school play. This, at times, disrupted the flow of the story so that it was difficult to relax and sink-in completely. That being said, there was also an endearing quality to it, when all was said and done. The language and prose itself matched the characterization in that it was clever, witty, and sharp. The dialogue was often the most interesting element of the story, and Irving’s ability at description certainly shows – it is perhaps the glue that holds the entire novel together, when it seems to be jumping around.
Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
What I found most difficult about this novel is that it is written by a heterosexual man who seems to be trying too hard. Granted, Irving certainly has a history of exploring sexuality and human nature; still, because it was so over-the-top (almost every character had to be at least a little “gay” in someway) it almost felt like Irving was pandering to a particular audience. That being said, Irving is also doing what his narrator is accused of doing by some of the more bigoted characters: He is demanding tolerance. This I respect to the utmost and, in the end, I was able to put aside the fact that almost everyone in the book carries a “Different and Proud” card because so many moments in the book were pure, sensitive, and hopeful. The story tackles the specific difficulties that bisexual men and women face, separate from general homophobia; for example, that they are distrusted by the gay community and treated with prejudice by the straight community. Ultimately, this book puts bisexuality and transgendered people on center stage in the literary world, in an empathetic and intelligent way. There are very few examples of high literature approaching these topics (few examples even in the YA or other genre categories, to be honest), so Irving’s In One Person is a welcome addition both to the LGBT canon but also to contemporary literary fiction in general.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest: Gender, Sexuality, Coming-of-Age, Transgender, Transvestite, Cross-Dressing, Family, AIDS, Death & Dying
“We are formed by what we desire.”
“Before you can write anything, you have to notice something.”
“All I say is: Let us leave les folles alone; let’s just leave them be. Don’t judge them. You are not superior to them – don’t put them down.”
“Don’t forget this, too: Rumors aren’t interested in the unsensational story; rumors don’t care what’s true.”
“Your memory is a monster; you forget – it doesn’t. It simply files things away; it keeps things for you, or hides things from you. Your memory summons things to your recall with a will of its own. You imagine you have a memory, but your memory has you!”
I’m glad that despite the issues you mentioned, you enjoyed In One Person, as I’ve been really looking forward to it and downloaded it onto my e-reader just yesterday. I think I’ll find the overabundance of not-straight characters difficult too, but we’ll see. Thanks for this review, I’m now really excited to start reading soon.
I’m glad too – I give Irving major kudos, it couldn’t have been easy to write, and he did clearly do a lot of research and/or must have put a lot of his own personal history into the work, in some way. I was not alive during the major AIDS crisis, but Irving was and, as he says, if you had your eyes open, it was probably impossible not to be somehow impacted by the epidemic.
Thanks for posting! I’m a big fan of John Irving, and this will have to go on my list. I understand what you mean when you write about how the main character was surrounded by an overabundance of LGBT characters. Although I think it’s true that no one really knows the inner thoughts/desires of the majority of the people they meet, what you described above does seem a little over-the-top! I put this on my wishlist!!
You’re absolutely write – and, as Literate Housewife says, the over-arching theme of the book isn’t just sexuality (though that is primary) – it’s that regardless of how we are different, we all deserve to be respected, treated fairly, and left alone to live our lives without fear or persecution. This is a great message, just a bit slap-ya-over-the-head-with-it in delivery.
This is an excellent review. Your critisms are balanced and on point. I, too, noticed that every character seemed to have an otherness about them. The way I let that sink in was that if we look inside, we are more alike than we would let on, sexually or otherwise. I was so unaware of these situations growing up and have wondered if I was just not seeing what was going on around me.
This book has made an impact on me. I can’t put my finger on just how, but I keep going back to the scenes about the AIDS crisis. Through a wonderful friend I met a man in Chicago who was 10 years younger than I am now. He was dying of AIDS and I remember thinking how old he was. What I remember from meeting him was that I was silly to be scared and how muvh his partner loved him. This book reminded me of that meeting. I hadn’t realized how much of an impact it had on me and my outlook on life.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts and opinions on this book.
The latter portion of the book (with the AIDS epidemic) definitely spoke to me as well… I have read some books about AIDS that were just too much (too angry, too full of blame, too hopeless) but this one, like Kushner’s Angels in America, dealt with the terrible reality of it, but also gave some hope and positivity. Aside from the fact that certain characters from the narrator’s past had to show up out of the blue dying of AIDS (when there seemed no need for them to even bey gay, considering their sexuality was never mentioned in the first place), I did appreciate the last third of the book quite a bit.
May need to check this one out down the line (working on my own TBR list, you know). I loved The Cider House Rules and have always heard good reviews for Irving’s work. He is a talented writer. And I like that he is staying fresh with the times and writing about topics like this. He always writes about controversial topics, but does so in a way that makes you second guess what you know about the subject. I love that!
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