Reviewed by Terri Schlichenmeyer
ONLY ON THE WEB
When you look back over your life, you notice things that make you say, “Yes. That makes sense.” You always wondered why you love certain foods, adore cozy smells, or have a way with words—until you learn that your mother loved those foods, your grandfather wore that scent, and your father was a writer once.
Billy Abbott sometimes wondered why he was drawn to certain people and not to others. But in the new novel In One Person by John Irving, everything falls into place when he discovers truths about his family.
It was almost fitting, really, that Billy’s stepfather, Richard, introduced Billy to Miss Frost, the librarian. Richard thought he was ushering Billy into the riches of the library in First Sister, Vermont. Richard thought he was doing something positive for the 13-year-old, but the well-meaning introduction was inadvertently apt: Billy had had a mad crush on Richard, and upon meeting Miss Frost, he crushed on her, too.
They were his first two “crushes on the wrong people.”
Billy wasn’t sure why, but his aunt and grandmother sneered when they spoke of Miss Frost. Grandpa Harry seemed to like her; maybe it was because he had an eye for the feminine. He was, after all, First Sister’s best-known actor, beloved for playing female parts in the community theater.
Aside from Miss Frost, Billy was oddly crazy about Kittredge, his school’s best wrestler. Kittredge could be cruel, but Billy wondered what it might be like to receive one of Kittredge’s wrestling holds. He also thought often about Mrs. Hadley, his best friend’s mother, imagining her in a training bra.
As the years passed and Billy fell in and out of love with both men and women, he was careful in bed but not in his heart. He lost so many of his friends and former lovers to AIDS, so many that he nearly lost track.
But one person kept track of Billy throughout his entire life. It was the one person who held the key to a memory that, for Billy, made so much sense…
Though it’s easy to slip into, and though the narrator of this story quickly becomes a friend, In One Person is a long book to read.
Author John Irving’s Billy is a storyteller, moving throughout his almost-70 years of remembrances of loves and losses, repeating, revealing, and admitting that he’s getting ahead of himself. Despite that the dialogue is sometimes cumbersome, it’s also appealing because Irving writes the way people talk.
And talk his characters do: Billy is observant and funny, sometimes disturbing, often achingly sweet, and possessing a wit you’ll start to crave and heartbreak he doesn’t hide. Yes, this book felt long at times, but Irving’s Billy makes you stick around for every single page.
Much like other John Irving novels, In One Person is not a book you’ll want to race through. It demands your time and attention, but you won’t be sorry giving either. If you’re up for a book like that, reading it just makes sense.
In One Person
by John Irving
2012, Simon & Schuster (simonandschuster.com)
429 pages, $28/$34.95 Canada
Terri Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was three years old, and she lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.