Sunday, March 10, 2013
In One Person by John Irving
In One Person is the story of William Abbott's life. An author now nearing seventy, Bill or Billy as most knows him, looks back over his life and thinks about the influences that have made him the man he is today. Bill is a bisexual man, and his life growing up in Vermont was spent coming to terms with his differences.
There is a wide cast of characters. Billy's father is absent and he has no memory of him. His male influences are his cross-dressing grandfather and his stepfather, ten years younger than his mother. He has a domineering grandmother and aunt, and a rebellious lesbian cousin. Bill attends an all-male academy, from which his closest friends come. Elaine is a faculty daughter as Billy is a faculty son. They have a close, sustaining relationship. There is Tom, who has a crush on Billy, and who later becomes his first male lover. There is Kittredge, a swaggering athlete, impossibly beautiful, who Billy adores and fears in equal measure.
Then there is the town librarian, Miss Frost. She recognizes Bill's intellectual curiosity and becomes his friend, guiding his reading and shoring up his self-esteem. Bill loves her and not just platonically. When as a senior, their friendship progresses to the physical, it turns out that Miss Frost was formally Al Frost, a former wrestling star at the academy. After leaving school, Al became the transgender Miss Frost.
The book follows Billy's life. It explores the AIDS epidemic, which takes many of Billy's friends and lovers, It explores his relationship with both male and female lovers. Finally, it documents Bill's creation of his own family of choice. He realises that what he needs cannot be found 'in one person' and takes what he can from those around him to carve out a satisfactory life.
I am a huge Irving fan. Many of the motifs seen in other books are here; the New England setting, the wrestling background, and the offbeat characters striving for validation in a world where they are different from the mainstream. Billy is a strong character, refusing to feel like less of a person because of his differences. Characterization is one of Irving's strengths along with his championing of those who are different. This book is recommended for Irving fans and for those interested in self-actualization.