When I first started thinking about In One Person for our book club, I was actively trying to find a book about homosexuality or gay rights. It is a subject often in the news, in our legislatures, and in our neighborhoods, if not in our minds. I have found John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany on several must-read lists, and the movies I have seen based on his books are sensitive, insightful, and entertaining. I read several reviews, and even the bad reviews focused primarily on how the book did not live up to expectations, or how so many eccentric people could live in one place. I was still uncertain about my ability to moderate a discussion about such a potentially volatile subject, but when I asked the book club about my considerations and concerns, one member was strongly outspoken about the importance of dealing with the discomfort!
So last month, we read In One Person by John Irving. The narrator is a man nearing 70 who is recalling his life and experiences as a bisexual growing up and onward in a small New England town, from the 1940s, through the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, into the new century. Six of us attended the meeting, and the discussion was not only manageable, it was inspiring. We agreed that the book was repetitious and long. As one member remarked, how many times do we need to hear that the narrator liked small breasts? Several members were moved by the author’s descriptions of the AIDS hospital scenes. Who would have thought that people could not be left alone with a body in the hospital because some would take a syringe of blood from an infected loved one and inject themselves? One member was impressed by how well the author captured the teen angst of a young man confused by the world around him.
We remembered how confused we were when young, about secrets kept by our families, about the world we were growing into. One member shared how a family member’s coming out as homosexual had affected her family. We mentioned the case of a prison inmate suing to have the government pay for his sex change operation or the parents of a young, biologically-male child, suing to allow her to use the girl’s bathroom. We tried to understand homophobia and one member was particularly incredulous about why people need to make laws to control homosexuality. Which of course leads back to previous meetings and our incredulity about the Japanese-American internment, slavery, and whatever may still be to come.
Two of us had not finished the book. I had stopped reading about a third of the way through because I was overwhelmed by the repetitive sexual detail – I had hoped for a bit more subtlety. Reading on a kindle makes skimming particularly difficult because you can easily move forward too fast and never find your way back! I tried reading backwards, which allowed me to understand much of the plot, but makes me an unreliable reviewer. After our discussion, though, I would like to try reading the book again. I don’t think that anyone in our group really liked In One Person as a whole, but we are all glad to have read and discussed it.
For those of you who missed the meeting, or to add some details I missed – and I am sure there are many – please comment or send me an email.
- Other works discussed:
- Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
- Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
- Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx
- Many classics mentioned by the narrator in the book