Monday, May 21, 2012
IN ONE PERSON by John Irving
John Irving is such a gifted writer. I think he always comes up with compelling characters and always has interesting things to say about the intricacies of human relationships. This does not mean that I love all his books. He nearly lost me forever with UNTIL I FIND YOU. I think A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY will always be my favorite but it is always pleasurable to pick up a new Irving novel. There are certain themes that tend to run through all of Irving's novels and you will find many of them here.
IN ONE PERSON explores the ideas of gender and sexual attraction through the story of William "Billy" Abbott. William is a self-described "sexual suspect" because he doesn't fall into any any of the categories of gender and sexual identity that society deems acceptable. He is a bisexual young man who has a particular penchant for transgendered women. IN ONE PERSON is an unusual bildungsroman in that it not only provides us with a semi-traditional coming-of-age story but it puts it in a highly unusual context. Billy is a New England boy at a traditional all-boys prep school who is struggling with figuring out who he is. The fact that his identity is colored by his sexuality and how others deem that identity as appropriate or inappropriate is the crux of the story. The story is not Billy's alone. We also see how the stories and histories of his family and friends develop as well.
In many ways, this novel is much more subversive than anything E.L. Watson could come up with. Irving is no stranger to the exploration of societal taboos. Billy makes people so uncomfortable precisely because it is hard to pigeon-hole him into a particular category. It almost seems as if the people around him would be more comfortable if he were strictly a gay man. Yet, no one in the novel really seems to fit any sort of traditional gender/sexual role. Maybe Billy really isn't the odd one. Maybe he is just the mirror for everyone else.
BOTTOM LINE: Highly recommended. The subject matter may be uncomfortable for some readers but I think Irving handles it really well. In addition to the his themes of identity and gender and sexuality, Irving reminds us of the value of acceptance and tolerance. I think there is a lot to think about in this book.