three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
59-July-Aug-2012
user_rating: 
0

748340.pngSex‚ and the results thereof‚ have always been central to John Irving's work: the sexual violence and cross-dressing in The World According to Garp, for example, and the abortion clinic in The Cider House Rules. In his 13th novel, Irving turns to issues of sexuality and gender identity. Recently reviewed: Last Night in Twisted River ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2010).

The Story: At the all-male Favorite River Academy in First Sister, Vermont, in the 1960s, the teenaged Billy Abbott is trying to figure out how to deal with his "crushes on the wrong people." There's the handsome but cruel wrestler and, worse, Miss Frost, the town librarian with man-size hands (and a secret of her own). Though Billy has many questions to ask, he has few people to turn to: he is fatherless, and his male role model is his grandfather, who performs female roles in the town's amateur theatrical society. From the perspective of an older, wiser man (now a writer), Billy narrates his youth, his coming to terms with his bisexuality, the devastating impact of AIDS in 1980s America, and his evolution into a man amid the confusing world of identity.
Simon & Schuster. 448 pages. $28. ISBN: 9781451664126

Globe and Mail (Canada) 4 of 5 Stars
"The riddle of how crushes are formed and the constellation of unanswerable questions it raises‚ do we shape our desires or are we shaped by them, and are we in any way capable of judging them‚ is at the core of this searching, deeply affecting novel. This is a novel that reaffirms the centrality of Irving as the voice of social justice and compassion in contemporary American literature." Steven Hayward

Guardian (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"The novel becomes a comic celebration of polymorphous perversity, and of literature. William plays Ariel in The Tempest, and Irving plays adroitly Shakespearean tricks: several deaths, and one beautiful witticism, happen offstage, to be reported later by minor characters. The term ‘tragicomedy's tends to be rather loosely applied nowadays to anything that's a bit funny and a bit sad; In One Person deserves it more than most." Steven Poole

Onion AV Club 4 of 5 Stars
"The last third of the book, which deals with the death and destruction wrought by the HIV virus, is among the best writing of Irving's career. Irving stuffs In One Person with people of all manner of sexualities, and while it's refreshing to see this many well-written and fully realized gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender characters on the page, it also slightly beggars belief that one small Vermont town could hide so many closeted folk." Todd VanDerWerff

Entertainment Weekly 3.5 of 5 Stars
"His prose, as always, is gorgeous, and Irving remains a master builder when it comes to constructing an epic plot filled with satisfying twists. But even Irving recognizes that a book about a bisexual man with a thing for guys dressed in women's clothing isn'st going to be everybody's cup of tea." Benjamin Svetkey

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This is Irving's most political novel since The Cider House Rules, but an air of sadness, not anger or passion, permeates it. It seems he wants to lower the volume of our raucous public conversation on issues such as gay marriage by constructing the story around a group of customarily odd, but intensely appealing, characters." Harvey Freedenberg

Los Angeles Times 2 of 5 Stars
"[The] deeper we get into the novel, the less we believe it, seeing the people here as not quite three-dimensional, manques for the larger issues the book means to address. I wish he'sd paid closer attention to the tensions, to the complications, of growing up as a sexual outsider in a culture where the desires and the pleasures of the body are still anathema." David L. Ulin

Critical Summary

At first, In One Person seems like vintage John Irving: it takes place in a New England prep school (with a side trip to Vienna), spans the 1950s to the present day, and has its share of quirky characters (including a writer-protagonist, single parents, and wrestlers). But Irving perhaps tries to do more here than in previous novels by taking on a serious, political theme‚ with mixed results. Some critics thought that the characters only serve to illuminate the larger issue of gender identity and sexual politics, while others felt that the novel seems a mash-up of previous works. Although In One Person (the title comes from a line in Shakespeare's Richard II, which suggests that we are all actors) won'st appeal to everyone, it is at times as affecting‚ and as darkly comic‚ as Irving's best work.