Reviewed by Katherine Matthews
In One Person is the latest book from prolific American writer John Irving, lucky number thirteen of his novels. Our narrator, Billy Abbott, is a man roughly seventy years old, looking back on his life complicated by a confused sexual identity, tracing its roots and evolution. As usual, Irving chooses characters which fall into somewhat peripheral and perverse realms, and makes them utterly approachable and sympathetic.
Using the broad view of the character’s life, from birth to old age, there’s time enough to get under the character’s skin. Billy slowly comes to terms with his growing attraction to men and men dressed as women, meanwhile unveiling the secrets of his family which ensure that no one’s closet is kept free from skeletons.
Initially, the distance with which Billy looks back on his troubled childhood is rather remote: an old man talking about his first crushes at such length is somewhat hard to connect to. Yet, as the story evolves into adulthood, through the decades, time becomes an unstoppably relevant factor, as attitudes towards sexual identity change, and things which do not even have a name later form communities. Irving stops short of making this a political novel, though. He sticks to creating relatable characters and, while the characters make their views known, it never takes the tone of a polemic.
Irving fans will no doubt recognize a slew of his repeated themes: coming-of-age stories, characters that live in Vienna during their youth, wrestling, sexual deviance, an extended family bonded together by their quirks, and so on. Even the structure here is relatively familiar: a slow unpacking of youth, a view into adulthood, and then a deconstruction of the world he’s created by people leaving or dying. In this regard, if you’re an Irving fan, you’ll be comforted by another beautiful novel in his usual vein. What is different about In One Person is perhaps the lack of a central love story – the book title alone gestures towards the multitude of love interests that the main character has. Yet Irving writes love well, even (or especially?) complex love between screwed up people.
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