Book Club Reflection: In One Person by John Irving

6 Sep

After taking yesterday off to enjoy the holiday weekend, I’m excited to come back to you today with a book club discussion of John Irving’s In One Person. This is a book I was excited to read because I really enjoyed so many of Irving’s novels and this was one I hadn’t had time to open yet, even though I’d bought it as a Bargain Book from B&N for $7. I always try to exert some minor influence over my book club’s choices and it worked swimmingly this time.

I didn’t realize that one of Irving’s sons is gay. Another reader brought that up and we wondered if his son was part of the influence for Irving to write this book. He could have been exploring, as writers do, his thoughts and feelings on having a gay son. We wondered if it was difficult for Irving to accept his son and if writing this book helped. Others felt the book felt almost autobiographical. A lot of Irving’s characters share characteristics with him and Billy was no exception. Perhaps he was considering some feelings he repressed growing up. Either way, we felt Irving was very understanding of LGBTQ people and the emotional discomfort his characters went through.

One of our members didn’t finish the book and didn’t intend to. She stopped reading it early on because she felt there was too much sex and that it was too detailed. Having read other Irving books, I guess none of this surprised me as he’s always very graphic when it comes to sex. I shared with our group one of the reviews I read when writing mine. It suggested that he had done so much research about gay culture and was so excited about it that he couldn’t help but include each little detail, down to the origin of the ‘top or bottom’ question.

We felt there was a lot of Shakespeare in the book and that most of it weren’t tied in well, falling flat for many of us, especially those who didn’t know all of the plays as intimately as the characters. The one thing we gleaned from it was that many of the plays had a character like Billy, someone with a ‘mutable gender.’ We guessed the point was that there had been LGBTQ people since Shakespeare’s time.

Billy’s family was very understanding of him and who he was with the exception of his mother. We thought the others were more comfortable with him because of Grandpa Harry. It was hard to understand why his mother was so intolerant and angry until the end of the book

Billy father and Bovary hand one of the best and longest-lasting relationships in the entire book. Richard and Martha had a very positive relationship as well, but we found it odd that two people we didn’t meet until the end were so admirable. I felt that Billy was being compared to his absent father for a lot of the book but when we met him, I almost liked the father better than Billy.

Many of the women in the book were depicted as weak or stupid. Billy’s mother was never portrayed well and many of Billy’s girlfriends turned out to be bad people. Martha was the only woman any of us liked the whole way through. Even Elaine had times when she was hard to like. However, she was a good friend to Billy. She was consistently there for him no matter what he was going through.

We felt there were many ways men dressed as women in this book. Billy would always comment on how ‘passable’ a man could be as a woman. Donna was passable to the point that many didn’t realize she was born a man. Others, like Grandpa Harry, dressed as women because it was comfortable or that’s how they wanted to be seen. Whereas Billy’s father dressed as a woman for entertainment, the type of entertainment that annoyed Donna so much. It was hard to find a point in what Irving was saying about cross-dressing and transgendered people because of how differently all of his characters treated it.

As with many Irving novels, the side characters are many times more interesting than the protagonist. Tom Adkins appeared frequently and most of our readers were really annoyed by him. He was clingy when he was a boy and when he was grown up, he asked Billy to look after his son, which we found ridiculous. Just because he thought his son was gay he thought Billy was the only one who could look after him. It didn’t seem like a fair or smart thing to ask.

None of us were big fans of Larry, either. He reminded us of those college professors we didn’t like that always insisted they were smarter and knew better than everyone else because of their experience. In this case, it was Larry acting like he knew more about love and loss than Billy because he was older and lost his boyfriend. It seemed unfair to make that a competition with Billy.

Kitteridge fell flat to a lot of us. One member who couldn’t make it to the meeting emailed me to say how frustrated he was with Kitteridge’s resolution. Having his son come and represent him wasn’t enough for us. There’s a quote on page 188 of my copy (second page of Chapter 8) where Billy is reading Giovanni’s Room and a passage makes him think. “I immediately thought of Kitteridge- how my dislike of him was completely entangled with my dislike of myself for being attracted to him.” This thought persists for so much of the book that not bringing the character back was a huge let down.

Irving’s hints about Miss Frost at the beginning of the book didn’t trick one of our readers. Aunt Muriel says that Miss Frost ‘used to be very good looking’ and that ‘the available men in the town used to fall all over themselves when they met Miss Frost’ (page 2). Not many of us figured this out but upon learning about Big Al, these lines came back to our minds and we had an ‘Ah ha’ moment.

One reader thought at first that it was Miss Frost on the cover. The hips are very straight and the hands are quite big so many of us thought it was a man. I thought it was Billy wearing Elaine’s bra and many others think this might be the right answer (if there is a right answer).

The title has a great meaning as well. It appears in the epitaph of the book, “Thus play I in one person many people, And none contented.’ It’s a quote from Shakespeare and like Shakespeare’s character Ariel, Billy had a more fluid sexuality, almost mutable. We were also reminded of the wonderful quote from Miss Frost and memorably included in the last line of the book. “My dear boy, please don’t put a label on me- don’t make me a category before you get to know me!”

I’m not sure I created any more Irving fans but I’ll see if I can try again! We’re reading a non-fiction next month and I’m very excited for a short fiction break. Hope to have you all reading again then.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

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