John Irving's In One Person - A Review
Billy Abbott is the teenage boy who wants to become a writer and be with an older woman, a librarian, Miss Frost, when In One Person opens in the fictional town of First Sister, Vermont in the 1950s. Miss Frost is one of a number of characters this adolescent will lust after in the early part of the book. If you are familiar with John Irving’s work you already see how well this fits his oeuvre. The international bestselling author's themes are so well known Wikipedia has a literal checklist: the New England setting, a central character who is (or will become) a writer and, in the case of In One Person, quite a few of what Wikipedia categorizes as “sexual variations," to name a few.
Irving, who turns 70 this year, is brave. That’s what I kept thinking as I read In One Person, a book that long before its release had buzz as a “return to form” for an author who already has a National Book Award (for The World According to Garp) and an Oscar (for his adaption of his novel The Cider House Rules) to his credit. Like a great actor (and this book is filled with thespians) Irving throws himself into the role of his protagonist, Billy Abbott, the teenage boy so in love with that librarian, Miss Frost and in so doing, immerses us in his vivid world.
As the novel’s narrator we slip, like the author, into Billy’s shoes and join him as he develops this crush on the older woman. She doesn’t have large breasts, but Billy doesn’t mind. Nor does he find it a problem how starkly in contrast Miss Frost’s girlish chest is with her “broad shoulders,” “her mannish size and obvious physical strength.” All this to say that when Irving reveals that Miss Frost, Alberta is her first name, is not actually a woman, or wasn’t born that way, it doesn’t much matter. Irving has to convincingly taken us into this improbable relationship that we’re in it the whole way with our narrator. So what if Alberta was once an Albert? Billy sure doesn't. He's a bisexual, hence the novel's title.