In One Person by John Irving
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
(ARC received from Simon & Schuster via Barnes & Noble.)
John Irving doesn't really write books. He writes journeys. I once read a director (I believe) quoted regarding adapting A Widow for One Year for film (The Door in the Floor) that adaptations of John Irving novels ought to be considered an art forum unto themselves. Certainly, the scope alone makes adaptation difficult--we meet William "Bill" Abbott at age fifteen in the beginning of the novel, and at the end he's seventy. But the beauty of Irving is that he can make a sixty-year journey in the same head a worthwhile read.
The writing: Irving's writing is somehow always magnificent. There are many literary fiction writers I otherwise adore but whose prose in places can't hold my attention; that was not the case here. In this, the writing does its work best bringing to life the incredible cast of characters; and importantly, the fluidity of gender and sexuality among them. Often in writers' circles, you'll hear talk of "How do you write a man if you're a woman writer" or vice versa. Well, how do you write a bisexual man surrounded by characters who are transgendered, cisgendered, straight, gay and everything in between? If you're Irving, the answer is "You write them well."
The characters: Another Goodreads reviewer describes Bill as a cipher, and I'm not sure that's entirely inaccurate here. Although I certainly didn't find him a weak character by any means, it is much more fun in this novel to watch the colorful people who populate his world, such as Elaine, Kittredge and Miss Frost. But to me, this makes sense for this book. The immediacy of the first-person narrator means that we see the world through Bill's eyes, and really, he slowly comes to the realizations he does about himself as he discovers the private lives of those around him. So, yes. Bill himself isn't a take-charge, bust-the-walls down kind of narrator. But it's exactly that process that makes the novel so interesting.
The plot: PERSON is not a linear novel, which is a technique Irving has used in other novels like WIDOW FOR ONE YEAR. However, and perhaps it's because it's been a few years, this one felt more twisty to me, but in a very good way. As I moved between William's slow discovery of himself and the people around him during his high school years and his uncovering and exploration of his sexuality as an adult and beyond, I felt the perfect tension between knowing that *something* was going to happen with any given character (Kittridge, Delacorte, Elaine) and not knowing exactly what that something was.
My only minor quibble with the plot (and it's only a quibble which came to me several weeks after I finished the book), was that in some ways, the things which happened to the other characters were too convenient. I'm gung-ho for books which challenge heteronormativity, but let's face it, there are a lot of boring, straight people in the world and there conveniently weren't very many in Bill's. Upon thinking about it again, I found that odd--but as I was swept up in reading the book over the course of a weekend, I didn't notice it one bit.
Overall: When I finished this book, I immediately jumped on my phone and tweeted about what a wonderful read it was and how sad I was to finish. Irving doesn't write novels, he writes journeys, and I found Bill Abbott's journey to be a journey more than worth taking.
4.5 stars out of 5. Rounded down for the coincidental character bit.
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Jessica S. Schley was once a pusher of very important papers for a small commercial nonfiction house. Nowadays, she divides her time between bookselling, being a grad student, and writing contemporary fiction for young adults.
- ▼ May (7)