Book Review: In One Person by John Irving
I have just finished reading John Irving's newest book, In One Person, and I'm happy to say that I loved it. Irving has long been my favorite author and I await his books with barely suppressed excitement. I love the way he develops interesting characters and leads us down new paths, all the while incorporating some common themes that readers have come to expect from him. Recognizing these common themes makes me feel a part of a secret society- like he is placing little clues for us to find along the way. Bears, wrestling, cross-dressing and transsexuals, abortion, incest, private boys' schools, New England and religion are just a few of these themes. And we find most of these in his latest, In One Person. The name comes from Shakespeare's Richard II: "Thus play I in one person many people, and none contended." The novel is written in first person and is narrated by Billy, a bisexual from a small town in Vermont who attends a private, all-boys school. The story follows his relationships beginning with that of his cross-dressing grandfather and transsexual town librarian to his many friends who die from the AIDS epidemic that begins in the mid-80's. It is so interesting to see the many "people" that are contained within one character. His grandfather is at once a lumberman who wears flannel shirts and works hard and an amateur thespian who only plays female roles in the local plays. The librarian is at once demure and elegant while also being strong and masculine. And Billy loves both men and women, sometimes rolled into the same person.
On a personal note, I found the subject of the beginning of the AIDS epidemic to be particularly resonant. As a young nursing student in the early 80's, I was on the frontlines of this disease. I remember one incident in particular. I was working at a small community hospital and a patient with AIDS was admitted. When awaiting my patient assignment for the day, I overheard one of the nurses saying that she didn't get paid enough to take care of a person with AIDS. I immediately volunteered to take this patient while telling the nurse that she was abandoning one of her patients. I found this man to be kind and caring. He was concerned more for my safety than he was for himself. When I introduced myself and took his hand, he tearfully told me that I was the first staff person to touch him since his admission. He told me that his food trays were left just inside the door and that he rarely saw anyone. Reading about Billy's friends brought those days back to me. However, this novel is not morose and the stories about this disease are a small portion of the book. So do not be turned away for fear of reading some depressing tome.
This book will make you laugh and cry and may even outrage you. I strongly recommend it along with his other novels. My favorite (and one I reread yearly) is A Prayer For Owen Meany. I hope you enjoy them.