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John Irving: In One Person (2012)


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


Author: bettinathenomad

Nomad. International Relations geek. Reader. Feminist. Swimmer. Boulderer. Runner. Hiker. Not necessarily in that order.

13 thoughts on “John Irving: In One Person (2012)

  1. I really enjoyed this one as well, despite some of the issues I had with it (such as the one you mention).

    My favorite Irving, so far, is The World According to Garp. If you haven’t read that one, yet (it doesn’t look like you have), then I highly recommend it – especially for someone who already knows and loves Irving!

  2. I wanted to love this book, and I found Irving’s writing quite wonderful. But, the story dragged on and on for me…near the last quarter I was done with everyone’s issues. It’s not that they aren’t valid, of course, they just became tedious for me.

    I’ve just (almost) finished A Prayer for Owen Meany. I couldn’t read the last chapter because I know ‘something bad’ happens to Owen and it was too close to home in terms of dealing with some of my own son’s choices. But, it was quite a moving novel. The images were wonderful, as were the relationships between the characters and the political commentary. (Who didn’t hate the Vietnam war? I so remember it from my childhood, being not much younger than Irving myself.)

    I’d like to read Cider House Rules and Hotel New Hampshire, but as you say, one needs to take one’s time with good writers.

  3. “it didn’t come close to The Cider House Rules, but I still enjoyed it a lot”
    Exactly the same reaction I had with Last Night in Twisted River. As for In One Person, I think it’s not for me: the sexuality angle is not what I appreciate Irving for. Thank you for the review!

    • I heard some stuff about Last Night in Twisted River that went in the same direction and that’s why I decided not to read it, I thought I might come away disappointed.
      If you don’t want to deal with the sexuality angle, then don’t read In One Person, there’s no way to get away from it 😉

  4. I haven’t read it, but I definitely have plans to read it, but could that be part of the novel? Normalizing non-normative sexuality? I mean I would applaud an author who did that because the ‘norm’ in books with non-heterosexual protagonists more often than not is the entire ‘woe-is-me’ arhetype. Again, without having read it, I would also take into account the idea of self segregation, like seeking like. Look at places like Greenwich Village in NYC or San Francisco, where you’d more than likely be a non-normative sexuality as a heterosexual?

    All these reviews are definitely making me want to bump this up my list!

    • Normalising non-normative sexuality could be part of the novel’s intention, but if that’s the case I’m not sure it’s very good at achieving it. It creates a universe of characters that’s other to such a degree that it I think people who have issues with otherness would be even more alienated. Unless the intended audience is really people seeking a break from the “woe-is-me” type of “GLBT books”, then it might work. I found it a bit too unlikely for that though.

  5. LOL! When I read “I loaded In One Person…” my first thought before reading the rest of the sentence was “wow, that bad?!”.

    My favorite book by Irving, and still on my top 10 of all time, is “A Prayer for Owen Meany”. Absolutely fabulous. I then read “The World According to Garp” and had a hard time with it, hence never daring to try another Irving since then. Have “The Hotel New Hampshire” in the TBR and will try it… eventually.

  6. You guys are out to make this difficult for me, right? Now I “have to read” A Prayer for Owen Meany and The World According to Garp! Oh, life is tough 😉
    I really liked “The Hotel New Hampshire”. I read it ages ago and I remember laughing quite a lot, but there were also some very touching parts if I recall correctly.

  7. I can’t remember ever reading anything by Irving, although I have seen The Cider House Rules movie, which is but a distant memory now. It sounds as though the book raises some interesting points for discussion.

  8. I bought this one a few weeks back I can’t wait to get to it!

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