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In One Person

In One Person

3.7 105
by John Irving

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“My dear boy, please don’t put a label on me – don’t make me a category before you get to know me!”
John Irving’s new novel is a glorious ode to sexual difference, a poignant story of a life that no reader will be able to forget, a book that no one else could have written.
Told with the


“My dear boy, please don’t put a label on me – don’t make me a category before you get to know me!”
John Irving’s new novel is a glorious ode to sexual difference, a poignant story of a life that no reader will be able to forget, a book that no one else could have written.
Told with the panache and assurance of a master storyteller, In One Person takes the reader along a dizzying path: from a private school in Vermont in the 1950s to the gay bars of Madrid’s Chueca district, from the Vienna State Opera to the wrestling mat at the New York Athletic Club. It takes in the ways that cross-dressing passes from one generation to the next in a family, the trouble with amateur performances of Ibsen, and what happens if you fall in love at first sight while reading Madame Bovary on a troop transport ship, in the middle of an Atlantic storm. For the sheer pleasure of the tale, there is no writer alive as entertaining and enthralling as John Irving at his best.
But this is also a heartfelt, intimate book about one person, a novelist named William Francis Dean. By his side as he tells his own story, we follow Billy on a fifty-year journey toward himself, meeting some uniquely unconventional characters along the way. For all his long and short relationships with both men and women, Billy remains somehow alone, never quite able to fit into society’s neat categories. And as Billy searches for the truth about himself, In One Person grows into an unforgettable call for compassion in a world marked by failures of love and failures of understanding.
Utterly contemporary and topical in its themes, In One Person is one of John Irving’s most political novels. It is a book that grapples with the mysteries of identity and the multiple tragedies of the AIDS epidemic, a book about everything that has changed in our sexual life over the last fifty years and everything that still needs to. It’s also one of Irving’s most sincere and human novels, a book imbued on every page with a spirit of openness that expands and challenges the reader’s world.
A brand new story in a grand old tradition, In One Person stands out as one of John Irving’s finest works – and as such, one of the best and most important American books of the last four decades.

Editorial Reviews

Ron Charles
…the sophisticated and garish elements of In One Person are laced together in an act of literary transvestism…[the] wonderful first section of the novel shows what a ringmaster Irving can be. His looping chronology gives the impression of aimless digression only until we catch up and find him on the trail of some larger truth. The story swings confidently from the burlesque comedy of Billy's dolled-up grandfather to the poignant anxiety of the boy's sexual confusion. And it's full of insights about classic theatre and novels, all gracefully integrated into Billy's struggle to figure out what kind of person he is.
—The Washington Post
Jeanette Winterson
In its fierceness and its joyfulness, In One Person has the feeling of The World According to GarpIn One Person gives a lot. It's funny, as you would expect. It's risky in what it exposes.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly
Prep school. Wrestling. Unconventional sexual practices. Viennese interlude. This bill of particulars could only fit one American author: John Irving. His 13th novel (after Last Night in Twisted River) tells the oftentimes outrageous story of bisexual novelist Billy Abbott, who comes of age in the uptight 1950s and explores his sexuality through two decadent decades into the plague-ridden 1980s and finally to a more positive present day. Sexual confusion sets in early for Billy, simultaneously attracted to both the local female librarian and golden boy wrestler Jacques Kittredge, who treats Billy with the same disdain he shows Billy’s best friend (and occasional lover) Elaine. Faced with an unsympathetic mother and an absent father who might have been gay, Billy travels to Europe, where he has affairs with a transgendered female and an older male poet, an early AIDS activist. Irving’s take on the AIDS epidemic in New York is not totally persuasive (not enough confusion, terror, or anger), and his fractured time and place doesn’t allow him to generate the melodramatic string of incidents that his novels are famous for. In the end, sexual secrets abound in this novel, which intermittently touches the heart as it fitfully illuminates the mutability of human desire. Agent: Dean Cooke, the Cooke Agency. (May)
The New York Times Book Review
In One Person gives a lot. It's funny, as you would expect. It's risky in what it exposes.…Tolerance, in a John Irving novel, is not about anything goes. It's what happens when we face our own desires honestly, whether we act on them or not.”
— Jeanette Winterson
The Washington Post
“There’s a talent at work in this brave new novel that — as Prospero said — ‘frees all faults.’ ”
The New York Times Book Review - Jeanette Winterson
In One Person gives a lot. It’s funny, as you would expect. It’s risky in what it exposes.…Tolerance, in a John Irving novel, is not about anything goes. It’s what happens when we face our own desires honestly, whether we act on them or not.”
From the Publisher
FINALIST 2013 – Lambda Literary Bisexual Literature Award

“This searching, deeply affecting novel…reaffirms the centrality of Irving as the voice of social justice and compassion in contemporary American literature. His work has been indispensible over the past four decades, and it will prove more important, more urgently resonant and more prescient, in the decades to come.”
—Steven Hayward, The Globe and Mail
“At once intimate and epic, broadly funny and emotionally piercing.... Irving is simply doing what he has always done, and what he does best: telling a bold, quirky, fundamentally human story, bigger than life.”
—The Vancouver Sun
“A rich and absorbing book, even beautiful, and probably the most different book of Irving’s long career.”
“Irving at his best: unbearably sad, unforgettably narrated, painfully human.”
—USA Today
“Billy Abbott is a character to set alongside those indelible Irving creations of the past, Garp and Owen Meany and Homer Wells.... You root for him from the outset. And when his story visits on him some of the more outrageous fates that Irving can conjure, you don’t give up on him…. It is another of this writer’s bold hymns to individuality, to the great American quest of self-discovery.... As the book triumphantly suggests, difference is one problem shared by everybody.”
—The Observer
“In One Person, as a story about sexual differences among people, has real potential to help effect positive change for gay and trans people, especially in the US. This is the novel I selfishly wish Irving had written 25 years ago.”
—Xtra! (Toronto)
“Irving’s gift is to make us care about characters that mainstream society relegates to the margins…. Heart-rending. Irving fans will welcome In One Person .”
—Toronto Star
“Irving is a master at getting his sense of place to feel special…. Ribald, engaging, measured and slightly eccentric. In other words, it’s John Irving being John Irving.”
—National Post
“In its fierceness and its joyfulness, In One Person has the feeling of The World According to Garp.... In One Person gives a lot. It’s funny, as you would expect. It’s risky in what it exposes.”
—Jeanette Winterson, The New York Times Book Review
“This tender exploration of nascent desire, of love and loss, manages to be sweeping, brilliant, political, provocative, tragic, and funny—it is precisely the kind of astonishing alchemy we associate with a John Irving novel. The unfolding of the AIDS epidemic in the United States in the ’80s was the defining moment for me as a physician. With my patients’ deaths, almost always occurring in the prime of life, I would find myself cataloging the other losses—namely, what these people might have offered society had they lived the full measure of their days: their art, their literature, the children they might have raised. In One Person is the novel that for me will define that era. A profound truth is arrived at in these pages. It is Irving at his most daring, at his most ambitious. It is America and American writing, both at their very best.” 
—Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone and My Own Country
“In One Person is a novel that makes you proud to be human. It is a book that not only accepts but also loves our differences. From the beginning of his career, Irving has always cherished our peculiarities—in a fierce, not a saccharine, way. Now he has extended his sympathies—and ours—still further into areas that even the misfits eschew. Anthropologists say that the interstitial—whatever lies between two familiar opposites—is usually declared either taboo or sacred. John Irving in this magnificent novel—his best and most passionate since The World According to Garp—has sacralized what lies between polarizing genders and orientations. And have I mentioned it is also a gripping page-turner and a beautifully constructed work of art?”
—Edmund White, author of City Boy and Genet: A Biography

Library Journal
What is "normal"? Does it really matter? In Irving's latest novel (after Last Night in Twisted River), nearly everyone has a secret, but the characters who embrace and accept their own differences and those of others are the most content. This makes the narrator, Bill, particularly appealing. Bill knows from an early age that he is bisexual, even if he doesn't label himself as such. He has "inappropriate crushes" but doesn't make himself miserable denying that part of himself; he simply acts, for better or for worse. The reader meets Bill at 15, living on the campus of an all-boys school in Vermont where his stepfather is on the faculty. Through the memories of a much older Bill, his life story is revealed, from his teenage years in Vermont to college and life as a writer in New York City. Bill is living in New York during the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and the suffering described is truly heart-wrenching. Irving cares deeply, and the novel is not just Bill's story but a human tale. VERDICT This wonderful blend of thought-provoking, well-constructed, and meaningful writing is what one has come to expect of Irving, and it also makes for an enjoyable page-turner. [See Prepub Alert, 11/28/11.]—Shaunna Hunter, Hampden-Sydney Coll. Lib., VA
Kirkus Reviews
Billy Dean (aka Billy Abbott) has a difficult time holding it together in one person, for his bisexuality pulls him in (obviously) two different directions. Billy comes of age in what is frequently, and erroneously, billed as a halcyon and more innocent age, the 1950s. The object of his first love--or at least his first "sexual awakening"-- is Miss Frost, the librarian at the municipal library in the small town of First Sister, Vt. While Miss Frost's small breasts and large hands might have been a tip-off--and the fact that in a previous life she had been known as Al Frost--Billy doesn't quite get it until several years later, when the librarian seduces him. At almost the same time he becomes aware of Miss Frost as an erotic object, he develops an adolescent attraction to Jacques Kittredge, athlete and general Golden Boy at the academy they attend. And Billy also starts to have conflicted feelings toward Elaine, daughter of a voice teacher attached to the academy. (As Irving moves back and forth over the different phases of Billy's sexual life, we find he later consummates, but not happily, his relationship with Elaine.) We also learn of Billy's homoerotic relationships with Tom, a college friend, and with Larry, a professor Billy had studied with overseas. And all of these sexual attractions and compulsions play out against the background of Billy's unconventional family (his grandfather was known for his convincing portrayals of Shakespeare heroines--and he began to dress these parts offstage as well) and local productions of Shakespeare and Ibsen. Woody Allen's bon mot about bisexuality is that it doubled one's chances for a date, but in this novel Irving explores in his usual discursive style some of the more serious and exhaustive consequences of Allen's one-liner.

Product Details

Doubleday Publishing
Publication date:

Read an Excerpt

I’m going to begin by telling you about Miss Frost. While I say to everyone that I became a writer because I read a certain novel by Charles Dickens at the formative age of fifteen, the truth is I was younger than that when I first met Miss Frost and imagined having sex with her, and this moment of my sexual awakening also marked the fitful birth of my imagination. We are formed by what we desire. In less than a minute of excited, secretive longing, I desired to become a writer and to have sex with Miss Frost—not necessarily in that order.
I met Miss Frost in a library. I like libraries, though I have difficulty pronouncing the word—both the plural and the singular. It seems there are certain words I have considerable trouble pronouncing: nouns, for the most part—people, places, and things that have caused me preternatural excitement, irresolvable conflict, or utter panic. Well, that is the opinion of various voice teachers and speech therapists and psychiatrists who’ve treated me—alas, without success. In elementary school, I was held back a grade due to “severe speech impairments”—an overstatement. I’m now in my late sixties, almost seventy; I’ve ceased to be interested in the cause of my mispronunciations. (Not to put too fine a point on it, but fuck the etiology.)
I don’t even try to say the etiology word, but I can manage to struggle through a comprehensible mispronunciation of library or libraries—the botched word emerging as an unknown fruit. (“Liberry,” or “liberries,” I say—the way children do.)
It’s all the more ironic that my first library was undistinguished. This was the public library in the small town of First Sister, Vermont—a compact red-brick building on the same street where my grandparents lived. I lived in their house on River Street—until I was fifteen, when my mom remarried. My mother met my stepfather in a play.
The town’s amateur theatrical society was called the First Sister Players; for as far back as I can remember, I saw all the plays in our town’s little theater. My mom was the prompter—if you forgot your lines, she told you what to say. (It being an amateur theater, there were a lot of forgotten lines.) For years, I thought the prompter was one of the actors—someone mysteriously offstage, and not in costume, but a necessary contributor to the dialogue.
My stepfather was a new actor in the First Sister Players when my mother met him. He had come to town to teach at Favorite River Academy—the almost-prestigious private school, which was then all boys. For much of my young life (most certainly, by the time I was ten or eleven), I must have known that eventually, when I was “old enough,” I would go to the academy. There was a more modern and better-lit library at the prep school, but the public library in the town of First Sister was my first library, and the librarian there was my first librarian. (Incidentally, I’ve never had any trouble saying the librarian word.)
Needless to say, Miss Frost was a more memorable experience than the library. Inexcusably, it was long after meeting her that I learned her first name. Everyone called her Miss Frost, and she seemed to me to be my mom’s age—or a little younger—when I belatedly got my first library card and met her. My aunt, a most imperious person, had told me that Miss Frost “used to be very good-looking,” but it was impossible for me to imagine that Miss Frost could ever have been better-looking than she was when I met her—notwithstanding that, even as a kid, all I did was imagine things. My aunt claimed that the available men in the town used to fall all over themselves when they met Miss Frost. When one of them got up the nerve to introduce himself—to actually tell Miss Frost his name—the then-beautiful librarian would look at him coldly and icily say, “My name is Miss Frost. Never been married, never want to be.”
With that attitude, Miss Frost was still unmarried when I met her; inconceivably, to me, the available men in the town of First Sister had long stopped introducing themselves to her.
THE one that made me want to be a writer, or so I’m always saying—was Great Expectations. I’m sure I was fifteen, both when I first read it and when I first reread it. I know this was before I began to attend the academy, because I got the book from the First Sister town library—twice. I won’t forget the day I showed up at the library to take that book out a second time; I’d never wanted to reread an entire novel before.
Miss Frost gave me a penetrating look. At the time, I doubt I was as tall as her shoulders. “Miss Frost was once what they call ‘statuesque,’” my aunt had told me, as if even Miss Frost’s height and shape existed only in the past. (She was forever statuesque to me.)
Miss Frost was a woman with an erect posture and broad shoulders, though it was chiefly her small but pretty breasts that got my attention. In seeming contrast to her mannish size and obvious physical strength, Miss Frost’s breasts had a newly developed appearance—the improbable but budding look of a young girl’s. I couldn’t understand how it was possible for an older woman to have achieved this look, but surely her breasts had seized the imagination of every teenage boy who’d encountered her, or so I believed when I met her—when was it?—in 1955. Furthermore, you must understand that Miss Frost never dressed suggestively, at least not in the imposed silence of the forlorn First Sister Public Library; day or night, no matter the hour, there was scarcely anyone there.
I had overheard my imperious aunt say (to my mother): “Miss Frost is past an age where training bras suffice.” At thirteen, I’d taken this to mean that—in my judgmental aunt’s opinion—Miss Frost’s bras were all wrong for her breasts, or vice versa. I thought not! And the entire time I was internally agonizing over my and my aunt’s different fixations with Miss Frost’s breasts, the daunting librarian went on giving me the aforementioned penetrating look.
I’d met her at thirteen; at this intimidating moment, I was fifteen, but given the invasiveness of Miss Frost’s long, lingering stare, it felt like a two-year penetrating look to me. Finally she said, in regard to my wanting to read Great Expectations again, “You’ve already read this one, William.”
“Yes, I loved it,” I told her—this in lieu of blurting out, as I almost did, that I loved her. She was austerely formal—the first person to unfailingly address me as William. I was always called Bill, or Billy, by my family and friends.
I wanted to see Miss Frost wearing only her bra, which (in my interfering aunt’s view) offered insufficient restraint. Yet, in lieu of blurting out such an indiscretion as that, I said: “I want to reread Great Expectations.” (Not a word about my premonition that Miss Frost had made an impression on me that would be no less devastating than the one that Estella makes on poor Pip.)
So soon?” Miss Frost asked. “You read Great Expectations only a month ago!”
“I can’t wait to reread it,” I said.
“There are a lot of books by Charles Dickens,” Miss Frost told me. “You should try a different one, William.”
“Oh, I will,” I assured her, “but first I want to reread this one.”
Miss Frost’s second reference to me as William had given me an instant erection—though, at fifteen, I had a small penis and a laughably disappointing hard-on. (Suffice it to say, Miss Frost was in no danger of noticing that I had an erection.)
My all-knowing aunt had told my mother I was underdeveloped for my age. Naturally, my aunt had meant “underdeveloped” in other (or in all) ways; to my knowledge, she’d not seen my penis since I’d been an infant—if then. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about the penis word. For now, it’s enough that you know I have extreme difficulty pronouncing “penis,” which in my tortured utterance emerges—when I can manage to give voice to it at all—as “penith.” This rhymes with “zenith,” if you’re wondering. (I go to great lengths to avoid the plural.)
In any case, Miss Frost knew nothing of my sexual anguish while I was attempting to check out Great Expectations a second time. In fact, Miss Frost gave me the impression that, with so many books in the library, it was an immoral waste of time to reread any of them.
“What’s so special about Great Expectations?” she asked me.
She was the first person I told that I wanted to be a writer “because of” Great Expectations, but it was really because of her.
“You want to be a writer!” Miss Frost exclaimed; she didn’t sound happy about it. (Years later, I would wonder if Miss Frost might have expressed indignation at the sodomizer word had I suggested that as a profession.)
“Yes, a writer—I think so,” I said to her.
“You can’t possibly know that you’re going to be a writer!” Miss Frost said. “It’s not a career choice.”
She was certainly right about that, but I didn’t know it at the time. And I wasn’t pleading with her only so she would let me reread Great Expectations; my pleas were especially ardent, in part, because the more exasperated Miss Frost became with me, the more I appreciated the sudden intake of her breath—not to mention the resultant rise and fall of her surprisingly girlish breasts.

What People are Saying About This

The New York Times Book Review - Jeanette Winterson
In One Person gives a lot. It’s funny, as you would expect. It’s risky in what it exposes.…Tolerance, in a John Irving novel, is not about anything goes. It’s what happens when we face our own desires honestly, whether we act on them or not.”
From the Publisher
“It is impossible to imagine the American – or international – literary landscape without John Irving….He has sold tens of millions of copies of his books, books that have earned descriptions like epic and extraordinary and controversial and sexually brave. And yet, unlike so many writers in the contemporary canon, he manages to write books that are both critically acclaimed and beloved for their sheer readability. He is as close as one gets to a contemporary Dickens in the scope of his celebrity and the level of his achievement.” Time

Meet the Author

The World According to Garp, which won the National Book Award in 1980, was John Irving’s fourth novel and his first international bestseller; it also became a George Roy Hill film. Tony Richardson wrote and directed the adaptation for the screen of The Hotel New Hampshire (1984). Irving’s novels are now translated into 35 languages, and he has had nine international bestsellers. Worldwide, the Irving novel most often called “an American classic” is A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989), the portrayal of an enduring friendship at a time when the Vietnam War had its most divisive effect on the United States.
In 1992, John Irving was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma. (He competed as a wrestler for 20 years, until he was 34, and coached the sport until he was 47.) In 2000, Irving won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Cider House Rules, a Lasse Hallström film that earned seven Academy Award nominations. Tod Williams wrote and directed The Door in the Floor, the 2004 film adapted from Irving’s ninth novel, A Widow for One Year.

Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
March 2, 1942
Place of Birth:
Exeter, New Hampshire
B.A., University of New Hampshire, 1965; also studied at University of Vienna; M.F.A., Iowa Writers' Workshop, 1967

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In One Person 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 105 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have only started this but already, I am having a hard time putting it down (for work, to eat!). It is beautifully written....the prose is descriptive & captivating, the story is excellent, and the characters are quirky & lovable.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have only just startedthis, but I findit to be as well written as even John Irving's best novels. He has been my favorite author since I read "The World According to Garp" in the early '80s.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Compelling characters. Social commentary. Ludicrous scenarios written believably. And as always the best foreshadowing of any author i have read. His use of language always astounds and amuses me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I usually love his books but I am about half way through and becoming bored and will probably pick up another book to read and come back to this one (someday). As usual, the writing is great but the story is interesting for a while and then drags on for too many pages before it becomes interesting again. Instead of 400+ pages this could have been written in much less. This is a disappointment as in the past I could never put one of his books down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have been a fan of john irving's since garp . This book has not let me down. I wish the wrestling was another sport, maybe ice hockey. However, all the oddities that irving does so well , are present and accounted for.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have enjoyed Irving's previous novels very much. I put this one aside half way through. It is predictable, jumps all over the place, and frankly boring.
KenCady More than 1 year ago
Despite my original misgivings on what I erroneously believed the book was about- a love story with a transgendered person- I was quite surprised to see that the romance was but one aspect of the novel, and that the story John Irving writes is full of interesting characters and a heartfelt look at the life of a person who grew up challenging sexual norms. It was a moving story that had me in tears at points. We see Billy Abott grow up, with his family trying to shield him from the so-called scandals that led to his birth, and we get a birds-eye seat into his life as he comes into his own and makes what he can of these very so-called scandals. Although Irving does not dwell at length on the AIDS epidemic, he nails it when he does cover the period when gay men were dying and their friends were struggling to cope. I have to admit that the transgendered world is foreign to me, but what I saw was that many people find themselves in bodies that do not suit who they are, and they make courageous efforts to be at ease in their won skin. Irving takes note that many gay men are not comfortable with a man who claims to be bisexual, and I am one of those. That part of the novel was a stretch for me, but then, the book celebrates sexual diversity as normal, and who am I to argue with a universe where diversity is one of the crowning achievements? I do take issue with the idea that there as many transgendered persons as Irving would have us believe, at least in one family. But maybe some day we will learn that such is genetic, I wouldn't be surprised.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I did not get very far in this book. It is sooo boring. Irving seemed to go over the same point 20 times in 3 pages. I do not recommend.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Irving did it again. This is an interesting story written on an interesting premise that is little explored.Overall it is a well-crafted story, with Irving at its best once again. It is a story that deserves to be treated with respect. In One Person is a well-observed story with witty lines, a great plot, colorful setting and fast pacing. I will move on to Fateful Ties, another recommendation. So far it is making me have trust in the person who recommended them.
MarieMI More than 1 year ago
I love John Irving's books, and he is my favorite author. This was not my favorite of his books, but I do appreciate his heartfelt journey into this misunderstood realm. He tackles heartbreaking topics, and injects humor, sadness, quirky characters, and moral issues. I can't think of another author who encompasses all of those things in one book!
Disappointed0 More than 1 year ago
Irving is my favorite author by far and I anxiously await his new novels. I pre-ordered this one and couldn't wait for it to arrive. But I have been so disappointed. I am not interested in the story or the characters. All of his other books (except the 158 Pound Marriage) were hard to put down, this one is hard to keep reading. To say I am disappointed is an understatement. There are definite Irving-isms throughout the book. They aren't enough to make it interesting.
Anonymous 9 months ago
I would not have bought this book. I liked other books by the same writer. I can only give it a "good" because of the writing. I should have read about the subject matter, but I did not!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Burning Sandals for president!(Bernie Saunders) Dump trump and Hilary is a criminal, do you want her running our country?!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of America's greatest living writers.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It is very distracting to read it when the letters and punctuation go right to the very edge of the page, nearly truncating the end and the beginning of every line.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love John Irving and this one was another great one.
lawladi More than 1 year ago
A wrenchingly difficult piece of literature, for the reflection of angst and sorrow felt by people who are members of any special population, and a must read for those who want to gain in understanding and compassion of a group just beyond our own.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a devoted Irving fan having had many years of terrific reading . But it came to an end with this book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A little too focused on one thing: gender. The characters who are not gender-focused (i.e. not trans, bi, gay, etc...) are underdeveloped, as is the non-gender plot (if there is any?). So it didn't hold my interest very well, altho I did read it thru to the end. I have no issues with LGBT topics, but I guess I need more than just that for a story. Especially one as long as this one is!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago