John Irving is the celebrated American author of “The World According to Garp” (1978), “The Cider House Rules” (1985), and over a dozen other well known books and plays. “In One Person” (2012) is one of his most recent works. Our narrator Billy describes himself as a “sexual suspect” and much of the novel explores themes of sexuality and gender. It is set in small town, 1950s New England (First Sister, Vermont) as the story opens and it remains there for many of its chapters.
For me Billy felt like a “catalyst” narrator who primarily brings the reader to the more interesting secondary characters of the story. The most interesting character by far is Miss Frost, the mysterious and attractive librarian at the public library of First Sister. Billy encounters Miss Frost early in the story when he goes searching for stories about characters who have crushes on the wrong people. Billy explores his bisexuality and this exploration becomes the basis for much of his interactions with other characters. In addition to other books, Miss Frost eventually (and carefully) recommends to Billy Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, a novel relatively new to the characters in this story (it was published in 1956). Literary references abound in the book, which gave it a somewhat academic feel, even for me (I have an English degree). Unfortunately, I don’t feel as though I can tell you much more about the enigmatic Miss Frost without spoiling the story. You’ll just have to meet her yourself.
As to the story, I got the feeling that In One Person is a fictionalized or thinly veiled autobiography of Irving. Other reviews I read agreed, but nowhere in the book does Irving own up to this. As a reader, I couldn’t decide if this was a faux memoir trying to be a novel or a novel trying to be a faux memoir. In One Person won the 2013 Lambda Literary Award for its honest and unapologetic portrayal of a bisexual narrator, but the structure of the novel is closer to memory than memoir –it fixates on a few climactic moments in the narrators life instead of trying to give us a full picture of it.
This was my first John Irving novel and maybe it shouldn’t have been. His fans do not seem to consider this his best work. If I had to guess as to why, I’d say it was the case of an editor unwilling to give The Great John Irving honest feedback. Had the novel simply been about Billy and Miss Frost, making their relationship the primary focus without attempting to be a memoir of any kind, it would have been more interesting and engaging. As it was, I found myself plodding through several chapters wondering when Irving would get to the point.
Bottom Line: In One Person is kind of like life itself. When it’s good, it’s great. When it’s not, have faith. 3.5 out of 5 stars.