‘In One Person’ by John Irving

The problem with really, really loving a particular author is that you start each new book of theirs with high expectations – you assume you’ll love it. And then you don’t and the experience is in fact worse than just reading an average book by any other author.

So you can see where this is heading… I love John Irving. There’s been some wobbly moments – The Fourth Hand and Until I Find You didn’t do much for me but all was redeemed with Last Night in Twisted River, a story that left me reeling. Alas, I’ve hit another Irving rough patch.

Irving’s latest release, In One Person, is the story of Billy Abbott and his life as a ‘sexual suspect’. Billy is bi-sexual and over the course of 450 pages, we meet the characters and witness the events that shape him from childhood to old age.

As always, Irving creates finely wrought characters. There are a handful of gems – notably the cross-dressing Grandpa Harry, the surly Norwegian lumberman, Nils, and angry cousin, Gerry. I didn’t feel any deep affection for any of the characters (expect perhaps Grandpa Harry). Loving a character is not a prerequisite for me liking a book. I’ve read plenty of excellent books where I’ve found all the characters to be horrid (The Slap for example). But Irving is usually different. His characters are beautifully detailed and generally by the end of the epic tale, you know them. No such case this time. Disappointing.

There were some lovely scenes, particularly focused around the library, the stage and Irving’s trademark, the wrestling arena. I did enjoy Miss Frost’s measured advice to Billy –

“Slow down, William,” Miss Frost said. “You can’t rush into crushes on the wrong people.”‘

“‘You should wait, William,” Miss Frost had said. “The time to read Madame Bovary is when your romantic hopes and desires have crashed, and you believe that your future relationships will have disappointing – even devastating – consequences.”‘

And perhaps the line that gets to the guts of the book –

“My dear boy, please don’t put a label on me – don’t make me a category before you got to know me!” Miss Frost had said to me; I’ve never forgotten it.”

There is a very serious side to this story – Irving delves into the lives of ‘sexual suspects’ during the eighties, when the AIDS epidemic took hold and the average person had little understanding of the disease. Irving’s careful blend of factual information and character-rich scenes is impressive.

What didn’t I like? The shifts backwards and forwards through time didn’t work for me. Where we supposed to see how Billy grew and matured as a character? Were we supposed to feel reassured that Billy would be okay? Perhaps, but I found it jumbled and repetitive.

I count on Irving to deliver plot twists that leave you gasping. Plot twists that have you putting the book down so that you can ‘take a moment’. In One Person fails to deliver. Approximately three-quarters of the way through the book, there’s an unexpected event but it is told devoid of emotion and lacks impact.

I pondered the ideal accompaniment for this book for quite a while. In the end I decided that it had to be a dish with a hidden flavour and when I came across these luscious maple buttermilk tarts with hazelnut crust, I knew I’d found my dish. As hardcore Irving fans know, his books are invariably set in New England (the states of New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine and Connecticut) and with the region as a major maple syrup supplier, these tarts with the secret hazelnut crust are perfection. While you are checking out the tarts recipe, take a look at the divine Honey & Jam blog – truly stunning.

2/5 Hardcore Irving fans will read In One Person regardless of reviews. If you’re not a fan, give this book a miss – it’s simply too long for what I consider a ‘good reading return’. If you want to read some Irving but don’t know where to start, check the titles listed on My Very Favourite Books.

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  1. Pingback: Top Ten Tuesday – There’s a new book out by… | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

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