In One Person: A Romance Novel for the 21st Century

John Irving has never been one to gloss over details. He has also never shied away from making political statements, even if his novels are not overly political. That is what makes his latest output In One Person so intriguing. It is a Harlequin Romance 2.0; a romance novel from the LGBTQ generation. And yet, it is so much more.

The novel centres around Billy – the bisexual narrator. Irving wades into a semi-meta-fictional world as he begins the story with Billy, a novelist, nearing seventy years old, and writing on the history of his life. Irving (or Billy for that matter) leaves no stone unturned, including gay, lesbian, fellow bisexuals, transsexuals, transgendered, and cross-dressers in his story. And Shakespeare. Yes, in addition to this being a love story for the LGBTQ community, it is also ode to literature – including allusions to Baldwin, Shakespeare, Dickens, and a one specific book that changes the lives of many characters.

In One Person has shades of The World According To Garp and could be considered a "spiritual sequel” to the latter book. His story-within-a–story technique has so many layers and so many twists and turns that it makes it relatively easy for a reader to become completely absorbed in the words on the page. With the exception of the narrator, who is quite revealing about the history of himself, every character seems to be hiding something – whether it is the town librarian who is Billy’s high-school crush, the stuttering school outcast who becomes, his life-long best friend Elaine, his stepfather, and even his father – who much like in “Garp”, Billy never meets and is guarded from his past.

The novel also contains many allegories to Irving’s own life – Irving was a wrestler, much like Billy set to be, Billy is a novelist who was the son of an unwed mother, just like Irving (and T.S. Garp). Billy is a voracious reader from small-town New England (Vermont vs. Irving’s New Hampshire). Irving’s stepfather was a teacher at his school, just the same as Billy’s stepfather Richard came to teach where Billy was a pupil. 

Finally, Irving makes sure to cover the gamut of LGBTQ history. Starting in the 1940’s and 1950’s when gay and lesbians and homosexuals were not often talked about through the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s, through the early 2000’s and the growing acceptance and understanding of transgendered people. There is a humours exchange towards the end where the elderly exclaims his confusion over the addition of Q to LGBTQ, though he has happy with the addendum. Readers, whether they are members of the LBGTQ community or not, will be happy with John Irving’s latest effort.

John Irving

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May 08, 2012 - Random House