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John Irving
In One Person
Simon & Schuster
US First Edition Hardcover
ISBN 978-1-451-66412-6
Publication Date: 05-08-2012
430 Pages; $28
Date Reviewed: 05-24-2012
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2012

Index:   General Fiction  

It's easy to meet Billy Abbott. You open John Irving's 'In One Person' and start reading. By the end of the first paragraph, you're immersed in the revelations of his first love, writing, and his other first love, the librarian Miss Frost. His imagination is born and without effort, you find yourself in First Sister, Vermont. It's 1961, and Billy is 13 years old. He imagines having sex with Miss Frost and he's re-reading Great Expectations. He never knew his father, but his grandfather plays women's roles in the local theater group. He's awash in a world of acceptable sexual ambiguity, and coming of age in a world that tolerates no sexual ambiguity.

But it is Billy Abbott of today who is telling the story. He already knows what will become of that young man we meet. He is what that young man has become. With a single voice, and really, just a single sentence, John Irving involves readers on an intimate level with one of the most memorable and complex characters they are likely to encounter. How the young Billy Abbott we meet on the first page becomes the man who tells his own story is a compelling mystery and history that is charming and edgy. Irving turns a not-so-ordinary life into a compelling portrait of a man, a nation and an era of changing sexuality. Billy is bisexual, a discovery he makes right in front of the reader's eyes. 'In One Person' is a bisexual bildungsroman.

'In One Person' spends more than half of the novel with Billy growing up in First Sister. Prepare to be engaged and entertained by Irving's wonderful first-person prose voice as Billy encounters a Dickensian cast of small-town sexual eccentrics. Irving manages a really remarkable balancing act with 'In One Person.' On one hand, it ventures well into territory that includes explicit sex, as Billy falls in love with both men and women, and might well be considered transgressive. But as Billy finds himself and his voice, he tells the story with such verve and heart that tenderness, not transgression is the primary response. Irving writes Billy's story with humor, but not as farce. Even in the face of a very dark future that readers know is to come, Billy Abbott's prose voice is one we want to hear.

Irving's plot is all about character, and since we love all the characters, even those who behave badly, 'In One Person' is a compelling quick novel to read. Irving intertwines timelines and stories seamlessly, telling the story in emotional, not chronological order. There are little arcs within the larger story, and many books within this single book. Readers who have a lingering self-awareness about reading will be rewarded with Irving's writing about reading, and about the joy of theaters and performances. The prose itself has the feel of a performance, and the prose tone is an essential plot point. When the AIDS epidemic arrives, late in the novel, we're prepared for the grim news, or as prepared as you can be when characters you care about find themselves in realistically written peril.

'In One Person' is probably not the novel you think it is, or the novel you are expecting. Given the timeliness of the topic, one might presume it to be a polemic, or to be overly explicit in a manner that could be off-putting to some readers. In fact, the opposite is true. Irving's charming characters embody the themes of the book, they live and breathe them. And these are not the only interests; irving returns to many of the tropes and themes that have haunted his other novels; those small New England towns, wrestling, love, plays, and writing.

The same engaging talent readers have enjoyed in his previous novels wrote 'In One Person,' and that talent is in top form. For all its political relevance and even power, 'In One Person' is a truly personal story. We care about Billy Abbott — enough to read the book twice, as Billy Abbott does with Great Expectations. Whatever your expectations are as you begin the novel, they will be both undermined and exceeded by the time you finish. 'In One Person' is the story of one Billy Abbott, yes, but it does as well, contain multitudes.

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