In One Person
is the story of William "Bill" Abbott, through his sexual confusion as an adolescent in the fifties, continuing on through the AIDs epidemic and right through to the
present. It doesn't have a plot, as such, but is the reminiscences of an old man.
I don't really know how I feel about this book. I'm torn between two stars and three stars, but I'll give it the benefit of the doubt because it was
kind of compelling (in places) and, overall, well-written.
Chronology-wise, this book is a nightmare. It jumps all over the place, back and forth, with little warning. Sometimes, I really had to work hard to work out where I was in the timeline, which isn't something I want to be doing when I'm reading a book. It would have been preferable to me if the timeline didn't jump around so much, though overall the book did follow from when he was young to when he was old.
I did enjoy the characters. They were sharply drawn and full of life (though you could say some of them are a little over the top - almost caricatures). They were enjoyable to read about, albeit not always believable. I especially loved Gee. It was a shame she was only in the last two chapters, really.
Believability was this novel's biggest problem. Did Irving really expect the reader to believe that so many gay/transgender/cross-dressing men happened to be in that one school in that one small town? Or that cross-dressing/being gay had anything to do with genetics? Bill's maternal grandfather is a cross-dresser, and his father is a cross-dressing gay man (with NO influence on Bill whatsoever because he isn't THERE), and we're kind of expected to believe that this is partly why Bill likes wearing a bra to bed and is bisexual. It just seemed too... neat. Real life doesn't work like this.
Also, the whole Kittredge being transgender felt rather out of the blue to me.
Also, I'm pretty sure having several characters who have speech disorders that work in exactly the same way isn't plausible either. I'm sure there are people in real life that have trouble pronouncing words because of psychological reasons, but two sexually different males in the same year at school, plus another character later? Hard to swallow (so to speak). Also, the way Bill always referred to 'the penis word' or 'the time word' or 'the shadow word' got old fast.
Whilst I'm complaining about things, the ending felt rather... rushed and abrupt to me. I turned the page expecting to see a bit more, but nothing. I don't know, I was just left feeling as though the whole story had been kind of pointless. Nothing had got resolved, as such. This is where the novel falls down, I think; the whole book kind of read like a description of sexual differences: he was bisexual, he had gay friends, his cousin was a lesbian, his grandfather was a cross-dresser, he was turned on by transgender (sorry, transsexual
, as Bill puts it) individuals, and, oh, look at how intolerant society is. Yes, society is still
intolerant (less so than the fifties, I'm sure), but I wish he'd used more of a story
to tell me.
But, you know, I didn't hate
The sexual scenes in the novel were well-written. They seemed rather real and natural, as opposed to the over-the-top sexiness of the erotica genre. This actually made them more erotic, in a way. The scene with Elaine and Bill near the beginning of the novel is a prime example of this; despite being rather awkward and clumsy, the scene is ultimately erotic.
Also, the AIDs epidemic was handled well. It didn't come until the latter part of the novel, but when it did, it was hard-hitting and really captured the brutal, merciless nature of the disease.
It's hard to really sum up my feelings about this book. It wasn't a terrible read, despite plausibility issues, and I did like it to a certain extent. To be honest, the whole book was well-written
. That's not a matter of debate, really. But just because a writer can use language well doesn't mean he can tell a good story and, on this occasion, I feel like John Irving fell flat. Despite this, it was quite a compelling read, once the initial hurdle of getting into the book was overcome.
As a character study and a piece of writing (technically), this book ticks most of the boxes. As a piece of fiction, not so much. Based on In One Person
, I'm not sure if I'd pick up another John Irving novel, though I might one day.
Do I recommend it? I'm conflicted. It's one of those novels, I think, that you need to try for yourself.