In One Person, by John Irving

John Irving’s In One Person is another book I would not have picked up, let alone read, if it weren’t for the Nameless Book Group.

12758317Can one person ever make us completely happy*? William Abbott, the protagonist of In One Person by John Irving, has a type, but that’s as far as he can commit. His problem is that no one else—especially not members of his family—can accept that he’s attracted to both men and women. His family disapproves of his lovers. His male lovers don’t think he’s all that into men. His female lovers think he’ll leave him for a man. On top of all this, Bill has an unfortunate habit of saying the worst possible things to his loves at the worst possible moments**.

Bill tells his life story in a recursive fashion. If you read In One Person over the course of three days, like I did, you’ll notice that dialog and themes are repeated verbatim. Bill was born in First Sister, Vermont under a cloud. For the longest time, all Bill knew about his disappeared father was that he was caught kissing someone else and that he was a cryptographer during World War II. Bill’s family is interesting enough on its own. His grandfather, Harry, is a hoot. Harry’s cross-dressing antics on stage in the town’s amateur dramatic troupe are a sore spot for the women in the Winthrop-Marshall-Dean-Abbott clan. When Bill is caught wearing his girlfriend’s (beard) bra and falls in love with the town’s transgender librarian, no one is very happy with him. Bill is sent to the school psychologist, but he is gleefully unrepentant about his sexuality.

Because this is a book club selection, I took copious notes about Bill’s psychosexual dramas. It was fun to psychoanalyze Bill from the comfort of my own couch. There’s a lot here for the group to talk about. The first two thirds of In One Person are all about Bill. He learns more about his past before charging out into the world. He doesn’t change so much as the world around him. What struck me about Bill, in comparison to the not heterosexual characters around him, was that he is always very clear about what he is attracted to. He doesn’t struggle nearly as much as the homosexual and transgender characters that populate this book.

In the last third of In One Person, Bill gives way to telling us what happened to the people he met at the all-boys private school he attended. At this point, I wondered what an incredible novel In One Person could have been if Miss Frost, the librarian, or Jacques Kittredge, one of Bill’s early crushes, had been the protagonist. Not that this isn’t a good book (much better than I was expecting), but I would have loved to read more about Miss Frost.

This leads me to what bothered me about In One Person. What interests Bill about his own life and history is not what interested me. He glosses over his relationships and large parts of his life to stick to the repeated theme of not belonging to either the heterosexual or the homosexual camp. Further, Bill doesn’t change much. The characters around him go on incredible journeys, but Irving doesn’t let us see those.


* Yes, if that person is Jaime Fraser.

** Relationship Pro Tip: Never compare your girlfriend’s vagina to a ballroom, especially when you’ve just had sex.


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