Book Review: In One Person by John Irving

Posted May 7, 2012 by in Book Reviews / 21 Comments

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: In One Person by John IrvingIn One Person by John Irving
Published by Simon & Schuster on May 8, 2012
Genres: Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 448
Source: the publisher

Goodreads | Amazon

In One PersonΒ is narrated by Billy Abbott, one of Irving's most tormented and impassioned protagonists. Billy grows up in First Sister, Vermont, a small town with two defining institutions: a boarding school named Favorite River Academy and an amateur theatrical society called the First Sister Players. Both will play a seminal role in Billy's formative years. He grows up fatherless; his biological father is one of several secrets kept from Billy. When his mother marries drama teacher and leading man Richard Abbott, Billy develops the first of many "crushes on the wrong people."

Billy's sexual yearnings are not limited to men. He fantasizes about Miss Frost, the statuesque town librarian. Another object of his desire is Jacques Kittredge, the school's handsome wrestling star. Kittredge is also the sexual fantasy of Elaine Hadley, Billy's best friend. Billy's understanding of sexual roles is further confounded by his grandfather, Harry Marshall, the owner of the local sawmill, who dons women's clothing and performs female roles in the First Sister Players productions with notable finesse.

Billy becomes a writer; as his life unfolds, he will draw his friends and lovers (for more than half a century) from a wide sexual spectrum, thus coming to terms with his own complex desires. During the AIDS epidemic, he bears witness to its horror and its politicizing effects. With compassion and curiosity, Billy grows into a man of singular qualities; he discovers that our differences can be as formative as our similarities.

Β (from the publisher)

John Irving is back, and I could not be happier with In One Person.

In One Person is reminiscent of The World According to Garp in many ways: the absent biological parent, the New England boys boarding school, wrestling as the prominent sport, Billy’s studies abroad in Vienna, Austria, and characters that Irving terms “sexual suspects.” In Garp, the sexual suspects–people who have been unfairly relegated to the margins of mainstream society because of their sexual preferences and/or gender identity–play semi-marginal roles; In One Person places them center stage (in more ways than one). At the heart of In One Person is a request for tolerance (at the very least) of all people, no matter their sexual preferences or gender identity, and a call for us not to succumb to the very human trait of labeling and categorizing each other–an act which strips us of our individuality and our complexity. As Miss Frost puts it so well, “My dear boy, don’t put a label on me–don’t make me a category before you get to know me!”

I fell in love with Irving’s writing and storytelling abilities when I read Garp, so it’s not surprising that I loved In One Person from the very first paragraph:

I’m going to begin by telling you about Miss Frost. While I say to everyone that I became a writer because I read a certain novel by Charles Dickens at the formative age of fifteen, the truth is I was younger than that when I first met Miss Frost and imagined having sex with her, and this moment of my sexual awakening also marked the fitful birth of my imagination. We are formed by what we desire. In less than a minute of excited, secretive longing, I desired to become a writer and to have sex with Miss Frost–not necessarily in that order.

After reading just that first paragraph, I knew In One Person was going to be a doozy. I was not mistaken.

The characters in this book are fantastic; John Irving writes characters so well, it’s easy to forget they’re fictional. Billy, his grandfather, and Miss Frost are especially wonderful, but I really think I could sympathize with all the characters, in one way or another. One of the many qualities that prove John Irving is a great writer is his ability to make even the most frustrating characters–like Kittredge, in this case–sympathetic. Irving is very perceptive when it comes to the human condition and it’s complexities, and his characters reflect that perceptiveness–they are complicated, sometimes very subtly, just like all of us.

In One Person sent me on an emotional rollercoaster–I could be laughing out loud one minute, angry the next, and it was inevitable that I should shed some tears (Irving’s writing has that effect on me). Irving is one of those authors who makes me want to read as slowly as possible–‘please let this book go on forever’–while at the same time sucking me into the story and making me want to turn the pages faster. I actually put the book down when I had only thirty pages left to read and refused to pick it up for a couple of days, just so I could savor what I had read for a bit longer before I had to turn the inevitable last page and accept that the story had come to an end. If I didn’t have so many other books to read, I would have started it over from the beginning on the same day that I finished it.

In One Person incorporates everything I have come to love about John Irving’s writing–great storytelling; wonderful characters; humor, heartbreak, compassion, and everything in between. I highly recommend it.

I also recommend watching this brief video, in which John Irving reads the first paragraph of In One Person, describes where the title for the book comes from (another aspect of the story that made me fall in love with it), and his thoughts behind the writing of the book:


  • I saw the video of Irving when it first came out and last week purchased two additional novels of his. I’ve only read The Cider House Rules and I’m really looking forward to reading more of his work!

    • I haven’t read The Cider House Rules yet, but I have that one and A Prayer for Owen Meany on my TBR pile. The World According to Garp was the second one I read, and I loved it. I can’t “gush” about it enough.

      • I know nothing about Prayer or Garp, but I’ve heard wonderful things and thus I bought them! Hopefully I’ll get to them this year, if not they’ll definitely be on my Mount TBR list next year.

  • Hi Heather, I am happy to nominate you for the Versatile Blogger Award. For details on the acceptance, please check out my blog:

    • Thanks, Celestine! That’s very nice of you. πŸ™‚

  • I have yet to read Irving (I know…scandalous!), although I do own most of his books. My mom is a huge fan of him so it looks like I may have to get her this one for her birthday. Great review, Heather, as always. πŸ™‚

    We should read one of his for TuesBookTalk. Which ones have you read?

    • I only started reading his books past year or the year before. You’d really like them.

    • Oh… I forgot to answer your question. I’ve read The World According to Garp (the one that made me fall in love with Irving), Last Night in Twisted River, and this one. I have A Prayer For Owen Meany on my TBR, and it’s often praised as his best book, along with Garp. It would be cool to read that one with a group.

      • I was trying to think of a good ‘reason’ to read one of his books, i.e. reading one of his books in the month of his birth. Well, he was born in March so… Then I thought, why not read a book in the month it was published. Before you commented back, I looked up his titles and The Cider House Rules was published in August. Unfortunately, Owen Meany was published in May. Would you want to read Cider House or do you think it’s dumb to have a ‘reason’ for reading the book? I just thought that without a poll, a reason behind reading it would be a good idea. Oh, also Trying to Save Piggy Sneed was originally published in 1982 so this year is it’s 30 year anniversary. Let me know what you think. πŸ™‚

        • I want to read all of his books, and I’ve been meaning to read The Cider House Rules for quite some time now. I think reading that in August is a great idea. Then I can finally watch the movie, too. Haha! You know, you and I could turn it into a book/movie comparison thing…

          • Great! Then that will be our August selection. And I was going to say that we should make it a book/movie discussion and reserve one week to compare the two. Fun times! The movie was really good, but kind of sad.

          • Sounds good!

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  • Wow great review! I saw the video you posted above a month or so ago and immediately but the title on my TBR. I haven’t read any Irving before (shameful, I know). Do you think this would be an okay novel to start with, or should I read one of his earlier works first?

    • Thanks, Brenna! You could definitely start with this one.

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  • Heather, you definitely need to read both Owen Meany and Cider House. They are both so so amazing. Along with Garp, I think they are Irving’s best novels although I also really liked The Hotel New Hampshire. I might have to join TuesBookTalk to participate and reread Cider House and watching the movie (never watched it).
    I really liked your review. If it’s anything like Garp, my favorite novel of all, then I’m sure I’m going to love it1

    • My favorite Irving is Garp, too, and it’s on my list of top ten favorites ever! I plan on reading all of his books eventually, and Owen Meany and Cider House are on my TBR pile right now. I will be reading both this year. I would love for you to join us for #TuesBookTalk in August!

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