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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Review of THE ONLY STORY by Julian Barnes (New Release)

4.5 Stars
Like many readers, I’ve come to expect extraordinary things from Julian Barnes.  This novel is as exceptional as his other books have been.

Paul Roberts, a septuagenarian, looks back at his life, specifically the romance that defined his life:  “Everyone has their love story.  Everyone.  It may have been a fiasco, it may have fizzled out, it may not even have got going, it may have been all in the mind, that doesn’t make it any less real. . . . Everyone [has their love story].  It’s the only story.”  He then proceeds to tell his only story, the “only one that matters, only one finally worth telling.” 

In the first part of the novel, 19-year-old Paul meets Susan Macleod, a 48-year-old, married mother of two.  They embark on a love affair.  The second part outlines how their relationship falls apart, and the third part shows the aftermath with Paul seeking to understand love and make sense of his experience with it.  The first section is narrated primarily in the first person, appropriately so because “first love always happens in the overwhelming first person.”  Then as passion becomes dispassion, the narration moves into second person and then, as Paul becomes more and more detached and seems to want to distance himself from the past, the third person:  “But nowadays, the raucousness of the first person within him, was stilled.  It was as if he viewed, and lived, his life in the third person.  Which allowed him to assess it more accurately, he believed.” 

The novel opens with a question:  “Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less?”  Paul chooses the former; he throws himself into a love affair, believing “that love was incorruptible, proof against both time and tarnish.”  He is entirely happy; he describes these days “as a time of cock-vigour so insistent that it forbade examination.”  Later, as things become more difficult, he realizes “love, even the most ardent and the most sincere, can, given the correct assault, curdle into a mixture of pity and anger.”  It’s difficult to give up because “You still believe, however, in love, and in what love can do, how it can transform a life, indeed the lives of two people.  You believe in its invulnerability, its tenacity, its ability to outrun any opponent. . . . So you do the best you can.”  And he stays because “Love was a Duty in and of itself.  You had a Duty to Love, the more so now that it was your central belief system.  And Love brought many Duties with it.  So, even when apparently weightless, Love could weigh heavily, and bind heavily.”  In the end comes the realization that “loving one another does not necessarily lead to happiness” so he, though he doesn’t mind seeing people in love, “was superstitious about, and preferred not to witness [marriage proposals]:  the moment when they flung away their lives because it just felt so right . . . The fear of such a scene would often lead him to an early night.”  Perhaps love does survive but at a cost; perhaps a deep love can only leave one “walking wounded.  That’s the only choice, after a while.  Walking wounded, or dead.” 

The characterization of Susan is interesting.  Paul is drawn to her high spirits and her quick wit.  She has perfect nicknames for everyone and speaks in phrases which Paul sees as signs of intelligence (though “when she first heard people talking about adultery, she thought it referred to the watering-down of milk”).  Later, however, she just keeps repeating these phrases so they are not original and become only tedious.  Did Paul see her as she really was or did he make assumptions:  “Naturally, I assume that she laughs at life because she has seen a great deal of it, and understands it.”  She warns him that, “We all have an act” but he doesn’t see that sometimes she is acting and doesn’t “realize that there was panic inside her.”  She also tells him, “Because at some point everyone wants to run away from their life.  It’s about the only thing human beings have in common” and “That’s one of the things about life.  We’re all just looking for a place of safety.  And if you don’t find one, then you have to learn how to pass the time.”  These statements explain so much of her behaviour later in their relationship but he doesn’t seem able to see things from her point of view.  Susan’s favourite act is what she terms her “disappearing act”; in a print dress with flowers on it, she sits on a chintz sofa so she is largely camouflaged.  Gradually, as Paul points out, more and more of her disappears.

I would love to read Susan’s version of the romance.  We only see her from Paul’s viewpoint and he is not always a reliable narrator.  Though the reader may guess as to her motives, it would be interesting to know more fully her reasons for getting involved with Paul.  He is a callow and self-absorbed.  He is pretentious, taking pride in having a transgressive relationship and railing “about the sham or respectability, the sham of marriage, the sham of suburbia.”  He makes an extensive list of what he dislikes and distrusts about adulthood!  Susan does not seem particularly interested in sex, even describing herself as frigid, and that is a good thing because Paul is certainly not knowledgeable about sex:  “I know little about the female orgasm, and somehow assume that if you manage to keep going long enough, it will at some point be automatically triggered in the woman.  Like breaking the sound barrier, perhaps.” 

I love the author’s turns of phrase and his imagery.  There’s a perfect image for Susan and Paul’s relationship.  Instead of holding hands, Paul often holds Susan’s wrists.  Later he dreams of Susan having climbed out an upstairs window and his holding on to her by her wrists.  Her weight makes it impossible for Paul to pull her back inside.  He fears his strength will fail and she will fall.  This image is used to great effect throughout but especially at the end.

As is typical of Barnes’ writing, there is so much to analyze in this novel.  I haven’t even touched on his examination of the role of memory.  The book’s tone is melancholic and the tale is almost overwhelmingly sad in its portrayal of how love can consume a person’s entire existence, but it deserves a reading and at least one re-reading.   

Note:  I received a digital ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

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