In One Person, by John Irving

Review published on July 1, 2013.Reviewed by Erin Britton

As a teenager, Billy Abbott feels plagued by his crushes on the wrong people. As an adult, this situation doesn’t change but Billy comes to accept himself and those around him, both their faults and their triumphs, in a way that allows him to look back on his life with joy. As Billy says, “We are formed by what we desire” and with In One Person John Irving uses Billy’s life to explore ideas of love and loss and the way that attitudes, whether personal or societal, change over time.

In One Person details the recollections of bisexual author Billy Abbot as he looks back over more than fifty years of his tragicomic life. Billy grows up in a small New England town and is raised by his divorced mother and, from when he is around thirteen years old onwards, by her new husband Richard Abbott, a youthful English teacher at Favorite River Academy. His actual father being absent and largely unspoken of, Billy quickly bonds with Richard Abbott and, through his stepfather’s guidance, enrols at the Academy and develops a love of literature and the stage.

While Billy does well at Favorite River Academy, he remains a definite outsider amongst the other boys at the school. Aside from the various adults that he interacts fairly comfortably with, Billy’s only friend is Elaine, the daughter of a colleague of Richard’s who also lives on campus. It seems clear – although generally unspoken – to everyone, including himself, that Billy is different from the boys. He develops a crush on Kittredge, the school’s star wrestler, but also on Miss Frost, the town’s enigmatic librarian. These crushes set the tone for Billy’s future romantic life as he leaves the Academy and New England behind and moves out into the world determined to become a successful writer.

John Irving is always at his best when he’s writing about the outsider experience and with In One Person he has captured beautifully Billy Abbott’s doubts and his determination to ultimately be himself. Billy Abbott is a complex, warm character with a gift for observation and a skill with one-liners. Through the prism of Billy’s life, Irving is able to explore society’s growing acceptance of difference, whether sexual or otherwise, and chart how life in America changed over the second half of the last century. While Billy’s youth is thoroughly mapped out and the impact of major events (such as the AIDs crisis) on his later life is considered, Irving could perhaps have delved more into Billy’s adulthood. It is certainly implied that Billy lives an eventful and exciting life as a famous author and man of the world but this period is given fair less consideration than his youth.

Although he may feel like it at times, Billy Abbott is far from the only outsider to be found in In One Person. Irving has packed the novel with a host of eccentric characters, many of whom have idiosyncratic approaches to sex, love and identity. Billy’s Grandfather Harry is a cross-dressing lumberyard owner who delights in taking on the prime female roles in productions by the First Sister Players despite the consternation of his wife and daughter. Outside of his family, it is Miss Frost who arguably has the greatest influence on Billy’s identity and she is intriguing, difficult character to know. In general, Billy’s relationships are well explored but it would have been nice to know more about Kittredge and also about Billy’s father.

Many of Irving’s favourite themes – familial dysfunction, schooling, sexual identity, New England life, the liberating trip to Europe, wrestling – can be found within In One Person and they are all handled masterfully. In One Person manages to be both poignant and funny and, even though Billy’s life experiences can sometimes veer dangerously close to an infomercial on tolerance, above of, it is wonderfully entertaining.

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