In One Person
My love affair with John Irving began nearly 25 years ago when I discovered Hotel New Hampshire, following it with The World According to Garp and then Owen Meany. I’ve continued to read nearly everything Irving publshishes (even the odd little Trying to Save Piggy Sneed) though I’ve found that few books carry the magic that his earlier work did. So In One Person landed on my stack of books.
Billy Abbott lives in First Sister, Vermont, is 13, and frustrated that he always seems to crush on the wrong people–his friend’s mother, an older classmate, and, most significantly, the town librarian, Miss Frost. We have hints early on that Miss Frost is not all she seems to be. Billy’s aunt and grandmother almost seem to hiss her name, Miss Frost, commenting on her “training” bra. So the reader knows well before Billy does that Miss Abbott is transgender. But Billy’s grandpa has perhaps eased Billy into this transmutable idea of one’s sexuality–Grandpa, a powerful local businessman, is also an amateur actor who often plays (quite fetchingly) female characters in the town’s theatrical productions.
Billy’s story meanders on in true Irving fashion and by the novel’s midpoint, we’ve the history of Miss Frost, Billy’s missing father, and Grandpa’s continuing gender bending in the nursing home. And in true Irving fashion, the writer pulls no punches–we are privvy to Billy’s sexual exploration with Elaine and we’re there when he loses his virginity (Or does he? Billy is quick to tell everyone “there was no penetration!”) with Miss Frost. Irving to the core.
Except that, for some reason, instead of being captivated, I found myself bored with Irving’s world and Billy’s endless kevtching. With all the “do I’s?” and “don’t I’s?” the characters became flat, almost characatures. I suppose Irving could have rounded out those characters in the novel’s second half–but I’ll never know because I stopped reading, something I never used to do but find myself doing to more and more. Life is too short, Irving or no.
Don’t get me wrong. I am drawn to novels in which characters blur the edges of their sexual identity. See my reviewa of The Rebellion of Miss Ann Lobdell (link) and Misfortune (link). So it’s not the content. I think one of the biggest weaknesses of In One Person is that there are just one too many similarities to John Irving’s own life. It didn’t ring true as a novel. Rather than write a fictionalized account of his life, he just might have been more successful had he written a memoir.