In One Person by John Irving
Published by: Simon & Schuster
Published on: May 8, 2012
Page Count: 425
Genre: Literary Fiction
My Reading Format: Review copy sent to me by the publisher for consideration
Available Formats: Hardcover, eBook, and Audiobook
Billy Dean, the son of an absent father and a mother still living with her own parents, may be young, but he recognizes that he has crushes on the wrong people. He may not always be able to identify his feelings by name, but he understands early on that he is bisexual. Not only does he have a crush on Richard Abbott, the man who will eventually become his stepfather and adopt him, but the tall local librarian with large hands, Miss Frost. It was through Richard’s encouragement and Miss Frost’s reading suggestions that Billy learned that literature can help navigate wrong crushes and bring sense to the human condition. It was there that he first expressed his desire to be a writer. Many decades later, Billy Abbott is a well-know author known for his novels exploring sexuality. It is this older, more secure Billy who is sharing his life. In One Person explores the confusion, fear, pain, wisdom, joy, and peace that comes from honoring instead of repressing one’s full person.
Unlike many others, I’ve read only two of John Irving’s thirteen novels, The Cider House Rules and now In One Person. Both novels are written from the perspective of young men without fathers who find even better father figures, men who teach them what they need to know to navigate their world and love every part of them. Both novels also address shame. There is the internal shame experienced when one does something wrong as well as the outward shame wielded by society to enforce societal norms. Through his storytelling, John Irving illustrates that the key to living as fulfilled life is to distinguish between the two.
There are so many things that impressed me with this book. Irving’s writing is gorgeous and his characters are so rich in personality. Grandpa Harry, the lumber man who loves to take on lead female roles in the town’s amateur theatrical society, is nothing short of a gem. He brings much needed levity and tenderness to Billy’s life. John Irving breaths both life and New England into all of his characters, from Billy and Ellen to the wrestling coach at Favorite River Academy. Just as with his characters, Irving’s themes are layered and intricate. I expected to encounter sexual themes when I picked up In One Person. The main character is, after all, a bisexual man who happens to be attracted to the most “passable transsexuals.” I was particularly touched by the sections where Billy recounts the AIDS crisis in the 80s and 90s. However, what stuck out to me even more was what Irving had to say about childhood and memory. When I read the following paragraphs, I stopped and considered not only how this applied to Billy’s life, but to my own as well:
In a later novel, I would aproach this idea a little differently—a little more carefully, maybe. “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.” I suppose I could have written “betrayals” instead of “robberies”; in my own family’s case, I might have used the deceptions word—citing lies of both omission and commission. But I’ll stand by what I wrote; it suffices.
In another novel—very near the beginning of the book, in fact—I wrote: “Your memory is a monster; your forget—it doesn’t. If 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’ll stand by that, too.)
~ from page 260
In One Person was nothing short of a compulsive read for me. From the moment Billy mention Miss Frost’s name until he has finished telling his story, I wanted to be in his story. I loved his quirky family and I loved the honesty with which bared his soul. This novel read especially well for me after having read The Starboard Sea. I wondered how Billy and Jason would have gotten along. Challenging, authentic, gritty, and beautiful, I cannot recommend In One Person more.