July 23, 2012

In One Person - John Irving

This book is vintage John Irving, and since I love John Irving, I loved this book.  Unfortunately it took me more weeks to get through than I had hoped.  I started reading this book back in June, but then got sidetracked by a Little House marathon in June, the Hunger Games Trilogy on the July long weekend, and finally Quiet which I couldn't wait any longer to read.

My reading then slowed down again as I got 3/4 of the way through this book as it was set in the New York City gay scene in the early '80s at the start of the AIDS epidemic.  The writing was so vivid that even though I wanted to know what happened, it was tough going.  I have some experience working as a physiotherapist with people living with AIDS and being able to put real faces to the story being told made it difficult to read.

And finally, just a chapter or two before the end, my 5-year-old nephew was staying with me for a week.  It was a fun week, but it didn't leave much time for reading!  So last night, after my sister and her two younger kids had come up for the weekend, picked up the eldest, and flown back to southern Ontario, I finally had a chance to sit down and finally finish this book.

As I said, it is vintage Irving.  All of the themes, familiar from his previous books, were present.  Relationships between people who, on the surface, appear inappropriate.  Misfits trying to fit into society before accepting themselves for who they are.  The rigid New England class society of last century.  Dysfunctional families.

I found the protagonist, Billy, to be quite like-able.  Growing up as a boy in small town Vermont in the 1950s, he spends his adolescence questioning his sexuality.  "Crushes on the wrong people" is how he puts it, including Miss Frost, the town librarian, his stepfather Richard, and Kittredge, the school wrestling team star.  He then goes on to have a series of relationships with people that would be considered to be inappropriate by the society of the day, including the aforementioned Miss Frost, a classmate Tom, a rising opera star Esmerelda who he meets in Vienna, a much older poet Larry who was also his professor, a transgendered woman Donna, a much younger teacher Amanda, his sometimes lover and always best friend Elaine, and a series of short-term relationships and one-night stands.

He eventually comes to accept himself for who he is, and even to embrace his role as he moves back to his home-town and eventually becomes a teacher at the school he had attended as a boy.  I was a little bit disappointed with the ending when I first read it, but with 24 hours reflection, I do like it.  It wraps up the loose end that had haunted the whole novel.  "My dear boy, please don't put a label on me - don't make me a category before you get to know me!"  That is the take-home message.

So yes, I enjoyed this book.  If you are a fan of John Irving, definitely pick it up.  If his writing annoys you (as it does, some), don't bother since as I said before, it is vintage Irving.  If you are interested in reading a novel set in the heart of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, give this book a try since the section in that era is particularly vividly written.  I didn't love it as much as A Prayer for Owen Meany (one of my favourite books of all times!), but it is one that I will probably re-read at some point in the future.


Christina said...

Thanks for the review! I feel pretty sure that I'd enjoy this one as much as you did, given my generally glowing feelings about John Irving.

Paydirt in Alaska said...

Not eligible just thought I'd say I loved "A prayer for Owen Meany" & "The World According to Garp" plus read a few more & enjoyed those, so this has appeal.