The second I heard about this book, I knew I had to read it. I’d read two others by John Irving before, The Hotel New Hampshire and of course, The Cider House Rules, and loved both. I’d then taken a bit of a break from Irving because goodness should be enjoyed in reasonable doses, right? To cut a long story short, I loaded In One Person onto my Kindle as quickly as I could when it came out.
Well, it didn’t come close to The Cider House Rules, but I still enjoyed it a lot. I just love Irving’s language. It’s incredibly well-honed and I admire the way he finds exactly the right words for what he wants to express (I could fangirl on about this for a while).
In One Person tells the story of Billy. By the way, If I could’ve changed one thing about the novel, I would’ve chosen the protagonist’s name, or at least allowed him to become “Bill” as he grows up. “Billy” irritated me no end – to me it’s just not an adult’s name (no offense to anyone called Billy). As he grows up in small-town America, he discovers his bisexuality and is forced to deal with it in the hardly supportive environment of an all-boys school where his stepfather is also a teacher. Faculty brat and bisexual? Billy doesn’t have it easy.
Irving traces Billy’s sexual (and other) developments from his first feeling that he has “a crush on the wrong people” through his adolescence, the AIDS crisis, and all the way to his return to his home town as an elderly man. I enjoyed the bit until the point where he leaves high school the most. The characters in the first half of the book are better developed and Billy’s struggle as he comes to terms with who he is seemed more interesting to me than the second half. In a sense, it almost felt a bit like an afterthought, although the period of the AIDS epidemic is extremely intense and very moving. But in the first part, Irving takes his time carving out the story and its protagonists, while the second part is more sweeping and characters are often reduced to a few rough strokes as passers-by in Billy’s life.
One thing that bothered me – and other readers as well, at least Adam of The Roof Beam Reader agrees with me – is the overabundance of (gender)queer characters. Nigh on everyone is in some way sexually divergent from the “norm”, in fact, sexual divergence is the norm in In One Person, which somehow makes the novel less believable. It’s just a bit too much. Agreed, realism may not have been the goal here, but the overabundance of queer characters does compromise the novel a bit for me. Surrounding Billy almost exclusively by other GLBT characters makes his own journey seem less important somehow; especially in the second part there was relatively little societal struggle of the type the GLBT community normally has to deal with on an almost daily basis, just because it was more or less impossible in the novel’s setting (aside from the wrestling club Billy joins).
Aside from these issues, though, In One Person is a very interesting novel of a person finding their own identity and voice. That and Irving’s beautiful storytelling made it a very enjoyable read.
Spanish title: Not yet out
German title: In einer Person