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June 7, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
John Irving’s latest book, In One Person, is not for the meek. Irving’s works, including 12 other novels such as A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Cider House Rules, frequently address controversial topics, and In One Person is no exception. With the skill of a seasoned author, Irving walks the reader through the life of his protagonist. Billy, whom we meet at the formative age of 13, is bisexual, and the novel depicts how he grows into this aspect of his life.
“Having crushes on the wrong people” plagues Billy’s childhood. His first crush is the local librarian, mysterious Miss Frost. Among the other “wrong” people are his soon-to-be stepfather, a family friend’s mother who also happens to be a counselor and an over-confident wrestler who is one year Billy’s senior. A speech impediment also adds to his problems.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Release Date: May 8, 2012
Billy’s support system comes in the form of his cross-dressing Grandpa Harry; his best friend, Elaine; and the school counselor he has a crush on. But, of course, there are less supportive characters such as Billy’s own mother and doctors who claim they have ways to “cure” homosexuality.
The plot jumps around with Billy as an omniscient narrator guiding the way. He goes on tangents to the future and the past, all the while loosely following his time growing up. His college years and travels to Europe are sprinkled into scenes from Billy’s high school career at an all-boy’s boarding school in Vermont.
Because Billy aspires to be a writer, libraries and the theater are heavily referenced in the beginning half of the novel. The fusing of acting with this sensitive topic is genius. In the beginning, Billy’s grandfather is merely acting as a woman, and it is only later that his cross-dressing habits fully come to light. All the characters’ fluidity within the roles they play and the ways in which they deal with their real lives give a greater sense of the larger theme of the novel. Just like one of the featured Shakespearean plays, Twelfth Night, nothing is really as it seems, and nothing can be easily explained.
There is no lack of detail when it comes to the sexual experiences Billy encounters to find himself. There are relationships with men and women, as well as men who appear to be women.
Each character has an impact that relates directly to the man Billy becomes. Readers learn that his father abandoned his family at a young age and is now known as only the code-boy. Tom, a young college friend, goes on a European trip during which both boys struggle with identity. Donna is a transsexual who helps bring into perspective the idea that being bisexual means neither straight women nor gay men can ever fully accept or trust Billy.
There’s a great moment at the end of the novel that echoes a sentiment first expressed by Miss Frost: “Don’t make me a category before you get to know me.” Billy, upon returning to his high school, shares this wisdom with students to help those who feel trapped by their own sexuality.