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In One Person: A Novel Hardcover – May 8, 2012

3.5 out of 5 stars 580 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, May 2012: Very few authors can create and sustain a cast of unique and unforgettable characters like John Irving. In One Person is a masterfully told story of identity, relationships, and the struggle that comes with living a life outside of the mainstream. The central figure in Irving’s lovely and strange novel is Billy; the narration jumps between different phases of Billy’s life, beginning with his most formative years as a teenager in the 1960’s discovering his bisexuality. Irving doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of sexual exploration and identity, forcing Billy, his friends, and his family (and the reader) to confront and question their beliefs and prejudices. Each new phase of Billy’s life brings new characters into the fold, but everyone serves a purpose and the ending rewards close reading. The world is not a black-and-white place, and Irving’s colorful characters embody all of the shades in-between. --Caley Anderson

An Exclusive Guest Essay from John Irving
John Irving
In One Person is about a young bisexual man who falls in love with an older transgender woman--Miss Frost, the librarian in a Vermont public library. The bi guy is the main character, but two transgender women are the heroes of this novel--in the sense that these two characters are the ones my bisexual narrator, Billy Abbott, most looks up to.

Billy is not me. He comes from my imagining what I might have been like if I’d acted on all my earliest impulses as a young teenager. Most of us don’t ever act on our earliest sexual imaginings. In fact, most of us would rather forget them--not me. I think our sympathy for others comes, in part, from our ability to remember our feelings--to be honest about what we felt like doing. Certainly, sexual tolerance comes from being honest with ourselves about what we have imagined sexually.

Those adults who are always telling children and young adults to abstain from doing everything--well, they must have never had a childhood or an adolescence (or they’ve conveniently forgotten what they were like when they were young).

When I was a boy, I imagined having sex with my friends’ mothers, with girls my own age--yes, even with certain older boys among my wrestling teammates. It turned out that I liked girls, but the memory of my attractions to the “wrong” people never left me. What I’m saying is that the impulse to bisexuality was very strong; my earliest sexual experiences--more important, my earliest sexual imaginings--taught me that sexual desire is mutable. In fact, in my case--at a most formative age--sexual mutability was the norm. What made me a writer was definitely a combination of what I read and what I imagined--especially, what I imagined sexually.

Billy meets the transgender librarian, Miss Frost, because he goes to the library seeking novels about “crushes on the wrong people.” Miss Frost starts him out with the Brontë sisters--specifically, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. She expresses less confidence in Fielding’s Tom Jones, which she also gives Billy. As she puts it, “If one can count sexual escapades as one result of crushes--"

Later, when Billy has become an avid reader and he returns to the library confessing his crush on an older boy on the wrestling team, Miss Frost--who has earlier given Billy novels by Dickens and Hardy--gives him Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. (This is the same night she seduces him.)

“We are formed by what we desire,” Billy tells us--in the first paragraph of the first chapter. He adds: “I desired to become a writer and to have sex with Miss Frost—not necessarily in that order.”

Later in the novel, Billy realizes this about himself: “I knew that no one person could rescue me from wanting to have sex with men and women.”

My first-person novels are confessional stories about sexually taboo subjects. The 158-Pound Marriage is about wife-swapping. The narrator of The Hotel New Hampshire is incestuously in love with his sister. Johnny Wheelwright, the narrator of A Prayer for Owen Meany, is called (behind his back) a “nonpracticing homosexual”; his love for Owen Meany is repressed. I always saw Johnny as a deeply closeted homosexual who would never come out. In One Person is a much shorter novel than Owen Meany, and Billy is an easier first-person voice to be in--Billy is very out.

Billy says: “I wanted to look like a gay boy--or enough like one to make other gay boys, and men, look twice at me. But I wanted the girls and women to wonder about me--to make them look twice at me, too. I wanted to retain something provocatively masculine in my appearance.” Billy remembers when he is cast as Ariel in The Tempest, and Richard (the director) tells him that Ariel’s gender is “mutable.”  (Richard tells Billy that the sex of angels is mutable, too.) Billy later says: “I suppose I was trying to look sexually mutable, to capture something of Ariel’s unresolved sexuality.” He concludes: “There is no one way to look bisexual, but that was the look I sought.”

Billy doesn’t start out so sure of himself. “You’re a man, aren’t you?” he asks Miss Frost, when he discovers that she used to be a man. “You’re a transsexual!” he tells her, accusingly.

Miss Frost speaks sharply to him: “My dear boy, please don’t put a label on me--don’t make me a category before you get to know me!”

As Billy learns--in part, from being bisexual--our genders and orientations do not define us. We are somehow greater than our sexual identities, but our sexual identities matter.


"This tender exploration of nascent desire, of love and loss, manages to be sweeping, brilliant, political, provocative, tragic, and funny—it is precisely the kind of astonishing alchemy we associate with a John Irving novel. The unfolding of the AIDS epidemic in the United States in the '80s was the defining moment for me as a physician. With my patients’ deaths, almost always occurring in the prime of life, I would find myself cataloging the other losses—namely, what these people might have offered society had they lived the full measure of their days: their art, their literature, the children they might have raised. In One Person is the novel that for me will define that era. A profound truth is arrived at in these pages. It is Irving at his most daring, at his most ambitious. It is America and American writing, both at their very best.”

Abraham Verghese

"In One Person is a novel that makes you proud to be human. It is a book that not only accepts but also loves our differences. From the beginning of his career, Irving has always cherished our peculiarities—in a fierce, not a saccharine, way. Now he has extended his sympathies—and ours—still further into areas that even the misfits eschew. Anthropologists say that the interstitial—whatever lies between two familiar opposites—is usually declared either taboo or sacred. John Irving in this magnificent novel—his best and most passionate since The World According to Garp—has sacralized what lies between polarizing genders and orientations. And have I mentioned it is also a gripping page-turner and a beautifully constructed work of art?"

Edmund White

"His most daringly political, sexually transgressive, and moving novel in well over a decade."—Vanity Fair

"A brave and affecting depiction of how in one life (sexual and otherwise) we contain multitudes."—Elle

In One Person is a rich and absorbing book, even beautiful.”—Esquire

“[In One Person] is a staggeringly ambitious work, and its success reaffirms Irving’s place among our greatest working novelists.” BookPage (Fiction Top Pick, May 2012)

“Few writers can craft misfits with the tenderness of Irving, and this tragicomic portrait of a bisexual man is a masterpiece of sympathy and imagination.”—Departures

“Gorgeous…Irving remains a master builder when it comes to constructing an epic plot filled with satisfying twists.” –Entertainment Weekly

“It is impossible to imagine the American – or international – literary landscape without John Irving….He has sold tens of millions of copies of his books, books that have earned descriptions like epic and extraordinary and controversial and sexually brave. And yet, unlike so many writers in the contemporary canon, he manages to write books that are both critically acclaimed and beloved for their sheer readability. He is as close as one gets to a contemporary Dickens in the scope of his celebrity and the level of his achievement.” Time

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; 1 edition (May 8, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1451664125
  • ISBN-13: 978-1451664126
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (580 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #533,420 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I don't know why the novels of John Irving move me so much, but he has been my very favorite author for decades. That said, not all of his novels are created equal. I think that In One Person is one of his stronger offerings in recent years, but I also think that it's not the novel for every reader. In short, it deals with very sexually explicit matters, and it deals sympathetically with characters who embrace the full spectrum of human sexuality. I'm not naive enough to believe every reader will be open to the subject matter.

At the heart of this novel is Billy Abbott. In the present day, Billy is nearly seventy, but as the novel opens, he's reflecting upon his sexual and creative awakening at the age of 13 upon meeting the town librarian. "And this moment of my sexual awakening also marked the fitful birth of my imagination. We are formed by what we desire. In less than a minute of excited, secretive longing, I desired to become a writer and to have sex with Miss Frost--not necessarily in that order."

Miss Frost, it turns out, is not your typical small town librarian, and Billy's youthful crush upon her has long-lasting impact on the adult he becomes. But Billy is prone to "crushes on the wrong people." By which he means boys. As he matures, Billy discovers that he likes boys, girls, and has a real soft spot for transsexuals. Being a bisexual male is harder even than being a gay male; he finds that partners of both genders never fully trust him. And as he embarks upon relationships throughout his life, Billy despairs that any one person will ever meet all of his needs.

Along the way, we meet Billy's friends, lovers, relatives, enemies, and passing acquaintances.
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N.B.: This is a somewhat lengthy review, with some detailed plot references.

THE EDITORIAL REVIEWS of In One Person are encomiums, for the most part. Encomiums are fine when they are deserved. In the case of this book, they are not, and are another example of why one must be suspicious of editorial reviews. I am an avid reader of John Irving's books, going all the way back to The 158-Pound Marriage, and even his reflective literary commentaries in Trying to Save Piggy Sneed. Indeed, Irving has given us some superb books, but this is not one of them.

In One Person is filled with repetitious and tiresome reminders that the main character and narrator of the story, Billy (Dean) Abbott, is a bi-sexual man, a "top," who shares a life-long friendship (sometimes sexual) with an enigmatic female friend, Elaine, both of whom have a "crush on the wrong people." In this case, one of the "wrong people" is a young wrestler by the name of Jacques Kittredge, who seems to have occupied both Billy's and Elaine's imaginations since the onset of their respective adolescent years. To say much more than this would only serve as a spoiler, and it is not my intent in writing this review to dissuade anyone from reading Mr. Irving's book - only to provide some company should anyone else reach conclusions similar to mine.

My disappointment in In One Person has nothing whatsoever to do with the subject matter, which facially concerns those who are marginalized because of their sexual orientations and gender ambiguities, but which is also (as in most other of Mr. Irving's books) about people who cross boundaries and live off of the beaten paths that society considers "normal" and so unproblematic.
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31 Comments 121 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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Normally, we write reviews to guide others in the wise use of their valuable reading time. We encourage others to passionately enjoy the experiences of reading those books which have given us pleasure. Usually, I want everyone to partake of the experience of enjoying a book I've loved and with books such as The Art of Racing in the Rain, I can't imagine anyone not loving these books.

With John Irving, I must write my review with full knowledge that some will detest his novels equally as fervently as I might love them. I couldn't possibly recommend an Irving novel to everyone, although I can wish everyone would open themselves up sufficiently to experience the pleasure of an Irving novel. No matter the subject matter and one's comfort level in dealing with Irving's unique perspective on life, he is simply a master at constructing a novel. He utilizes several literary techinques to keep the story fluid and engaging. Instead of building to one incredible climax (see Owen Meany), he tends to favor several memorable conclusions to the stories of his detailed and likable characters.

Some may read novels for the pleasure of seeing their own life reflected in the pages. Others, like myself, may prefer reading novels to experience a slice of life we'd otherwise never know. I have never attended a gay pride parade and despite reading this novel, still have no desire to ever do so. I've spent most of my life believing that homosexual behavior is a choice and not genetically inspired. At this advanced stage of my life the best I can probably do is admit that homosexuality is genetically based much more often than it is a social choice.
I'm not comfortable with the topic and I'll admit I'm unlikely to ever understand it well.
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2 Comments 94 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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