In One Person
by John Irving
Simon & Schuster
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The first chapter in “A Widow for One Year” is called ‘The Inadequate Lamp Shade.’ If you haven’t read it, then you should be doing that instead of this, for it immediately throws you into the world Mr. Irving created for that tale, and it’s not something you can put down soon after. That was my introduction to John Irving and I’m currently playing catch-up.
“In One Person” is his thirteenth novel, which also has a great open – our young leading man, Billy (whom we will follow for the better part of his life) is coming to terms with his evolving sexuality as he approaches the town librarian, Miss Frost. Both characters will anchor the story, another rich epic in the Irving canon which plays out against the backdrop of a New England prep school where there are wrestlers and young men coming of age and theatrics both onstage and off. This is familiar territory for his readers, though it does take bit longer to get there.
The opening chapters have asides and asides to those asides which keep our attention from landing for more than a moment. You’ll see phrases like “but I’m getting ahead of myself” or “I have digressed, which is also the kind of writer I would become” and think “no kidding!” Beyond that minor qualm, however, the journey is a remarkable thing. More to the point, our narrator will tell us “We are formed by what we desire” and the path to those desires leads us from First Sister, Vermont to New York and San Francisco and Europe and back again. Billy has a friend and a love interest here and there, but he is also very detached from the world around him, internalizing his experiences and the characters in them. Like “Until I Find You,” this novel is a quest, and a quest for something that may not necessarily reveal itself in the final pages. But this world, like so many that he has created, is one we want to spend a good deal of time in, regardless of the path, meandering as it may be.