Imagine a small town in rural America where Grandpa is a cross-dresser, the town female librarian isn't female, and the 15-year-old hero, Billy Abbott, is adamantly bisexual. Sounds a lot like...most real-life small towns, except that in John Irving's fictional version, everyone ends up admitting their various preferences (at last), and all of them perform regularly at an impossibly pastoral village theater that shuns crowd-pleasing musicals in favor of Shakespeare productions. What transforms the story from a predictable novel about private secrets into the story of a young man understanding his identity in the context of his family and past is Irving himself. Warmth, love, humor and the unexpected
are displayed by just about every character, even as they move on to larger, more urban pastures. The tone of the latter chapters deepens and darkness as Billy grows up and the age of AIDS-related dying begins, but the scenes astonish, full of the kind of compassion and wisdom that made A Prayer for Owen Meany
such a life-changing experience. "We are formed by what we desire," announces Billy Abbot at the beginning of the book. But we are also formed by what we make and what we lose—including, sometimes, those we love.