Introducing Stuart, Gillian, & Oliver. In turn, they speak straight out to camera - & give their side of a love triangle. What begins as a comedy of misunderstanding darkens & deepens into a compelling exploration of the quagmires of the heart. Originally published: London: Jonathan Cape, 1991.
Although we know blurbs can be unreliable, some are more so. The McGraw-Hill paperback edition of “Before She Met Me,” quotes the New York Review of Books: “Excellent...funny, original.” (We could have a lovely fill-in-the-blanks contest to make that accurate.)
Eleven chapters chart the downward spiral in the life of Graham Hendrick. He’s divorced, with visitation rights to a sweet daughter, married to a beautiful and charming woman. Their marriage is threatened when he becomes obsessed by her former life.
Long before she met him, Ann had starred in pornographic movies. When Graham, convinced that movie scenes are actual, seeks out these films compulsively, he loses track of reality and what this leads to is definitely not funny.
Because Barnes is a skillful writer the book is interesting, and, with some stretch of disbelief, even plausible. Original? Yes. Funny ? No.
So, while this novel does not put me off completely from Barnes, aside from a little bit at the end and the way the perspective switches back and forth between mainly two male protagonists and the female caught in the love triangle (with guest appearances by the female's mother and a couple of other axillary characters), the novel is largely formulaic. The plot, especially, is trite, and Barnes almost half-heartedly admits it at one point that the love affair with the best friend is predictable and overdone...so why did he do it? I'm really not sure about all of that. I think he thought he was setting up interesting characters. Gillian is an art restorer who peels away layers after layers of paint to reveal what is underneath. Stuart is a low on confidence banker and Oliver is an educated and posh sort of person who has difficulty telling the truth and has been involved in other scandals involving teaching English (and another less verbal language) to those who are learning it as a second language. The novel is set mainly in England with a little bit of it in America and a little bit in France. It was interesting hearing the different perspective of sometimes all three main characters on one event but the unfortunate thing is that even usually wasn't all that amazing to read about the first time. But, Barnes does indeed charm just a little bit with his active voice and his characters acknowledging they have a captive audience and try to win the reader over to his/her side of thing. That is definitely one strength of the book.
But again, the plot for the most part is largely predictable and the biggest loss I felt was for Gillian, who in the end makes a decision that is perhaps the more common one but I still didn't agree with it. This also gets back to why I love my favorite books-it's usually because I love the characters. The writing style and plot help, sure...but most of the time even if something is well written and unpredictable, I still have to love the characters. I have to share in their sadnesses and joys. I have to believe in their selves and adventures. If a writer explores only despicable characters (which I admit many great novels have done), I generally find the reading a harrowing experience and don't enjoy it too much.
That said, I didn't really enjoy Talking It Over very much. It was trite and I just didn't like any of the characters. I could sympathize with Stuart a bit but that's where it ended. There are many novels in this world and we're all short on time. Go read something else!
Quotes I liked.
pg. 11 "Imagine the organ of recollection as a left-luggage clerk at some thrumming terminus who looks after your picayune possessions until you next need them. Now consider what you're asking him to take care of. And for so little money! And for so little thanks! It's no wonder the counter isn't manned half the time. My way with memory is to entrust it only with things it will take some pride in looking after."
17 "If you remember your past too well you start blaming your present for it.
They say that as you get older, you remember your earliest years better. One of the many tank traps that lie ahead: senility's revenge. Have I told you my Theory of Life by the way? Life is like invading Russia. A blitz start, massed shakos, plumes dancing like a flustered henhouse; a period of svelte progress recorded in ebullient dispatches as the enemy falls back; then the beginning of a long, morale-sapping trudge with rations getting shorter and the first snowflakes upon your face. The enemy burns Moscow and you yield to General January whose fingernails are very icicles. Bitter retreat. Harrying Cossacks. Eventually you fall beneath a boy-gunner's grapeshot while crossing some Polish river not even marked on your general's map."
pg. 64 "I was also gone in the sense that I was transformed, made over. You know that story of the man who wakes up and finds he's turned into a beetle? I was the beetle who woke up and saw the possibility of being a man."
pg. 175 "You've got to be responsible for your own happiness-you can't expect it to come flopping through the door like a parcel. You've got to be practical in these matters. People sit at home thinking Some Day My Prince Will Come. But that's no good unless you've got a sign up saying Princes Welcome Here."
pg. 247 "I';; tell you something you haven't heard before. Pravda is Russian for truth. No, I guessed yo knew that. What I'm going to tell you is this: there is no rhyme for pravda in Russian. Ponder and weigh that insufficiency. Doesn't that just echo down the canyons of your mind?"
"My wife let me down, my best friend let me down, it was only my character and my bloody tendency to feel guilt that made me not see this before. They let me down. And so I formulated a principle. I don't know if you follow rugby, but some years ago there was a famous saying in the game: Get your retaliation in first. And now the way I live my life is according to this principle: Get your disappointment in first. Disappoint them before they disappoint you." (p.226)
In connection with love and marriage, Stuart concludes: "Money can't buy you love? Oh yes it can. And as I say, love is just a system for getting someone to call you Darling after sex." (p. 234)
The wife, Gillian, (wife first to Stuart and then to Oliver) acquires a pragmatic approach:
"It's unfair? What's fair? When did fair have much to do with the way we run our lives? There's no time to think about that. I just have to get on with it." (p.266).
The book ends with Gillian implementing a plan. The reasoning behind the plan, and the longer term outcome of its implementation were not at all clear to me. Perhaps Barnes is just trying to coerce us to buy the sequel, "Love, etc."? One LT reviewer commented that the sequel, too, left the reader up in the air and he/she wondered whether there was a third book in the series. I'm not sure that Barnes's plan will be successful in my case. Watch this space.