The Only Story: A novel

by Julian Barnes

Paperback, 2019

Call number




Vintage (2019), Edition: Reprint, 272 pages


"From the Man Booker Prize-winning author of The Sense of an Ending, a novel about a young man on the cusp of adulthood and a woman who is already there, a love story shot through with sheer beauty, profound sadness, and deep truth. Most of us have only one story to tell. I don't mean that only one thing happens to us in our lives: there are countless events, which we turn into countless stories. But there's only one that matters, only one finally worth telling. This is mine. One summer in the sixties, in a staid suburb south of London, Paul comes home from university, aged nineteen, and is urged by his mother to join the tennis club. In the mixed-doubles tournament he's partnered with Susan Mcleod, a fine player who's forty-eight, confident, ironic, and married, with two nearly adult daughters. She is also a warm companion, their bond immediate. And they soon, inevitably, are lovers. Clinging to each other as though their lives depend on it, they then set up house in London to escape his parents and the abusive Mr. Mcleod. Decades later, with Susan now dead, Paul looks back at how they fell in love, how he freed her from a sterile marriage, and how -- gradually, relentlessly -- everything falling apart, as she succumbed to depression and worse while he struggled to understand the intricacy and depth of the human heart. It's a piercing account of helpless devotion, and of how memory can confound us and fail us and surprise us (sometimes all at once), of how, as Paul puts it, "first love fixes a life forever"--… (more)

Media reviews

3 more
New York Times
Over a period of more than 30 years, he has returned again and again to certain lugubrious and exacting English themes: suburban conventions, coming-of-age anxieties and the enigmas of bourgeois love. From his first novel, “Metroland,” to “The Sense of an Ending,” which won the Booker Prize
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in 2011, Barnes has applied a melancholy drill to a patient still confined to the chair.
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London Magazine

User reviews

LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
Looking back on his life now, Paul sees that love is the only story. It’s the only story for any of us, and his story began, more or less, when he was 19, at home for the summer after his first year up at university. His mother had got him an invitation to join the local tennis club. There he
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encounters Susan for the first time. She is wearing a white dress with green trim and green button down the front. They are partnered in a game of mixed doubles. She is charming and encouraging with a beguiling laugh. She is 48. Paul’s story has begun.

What follows is in part an account of Paul and Susan’s life together. And apart. Susan is surprisingly adventurous. Paul is full of pride and conceit. When they get expelled from the tennis club they are almost gleeful. But this is not a brief summer romance, a necessary step in Paul’s romantic and erotic education. This is love. Or what passes for love. So when they eventually escape to London, buy an ex-council house, and get on with things, that’s just part of it. Heartbreak can be part of a love story too, obviously. As can decline, abandonment, disdain, caring, fond memories, self-delusion and more.

Julian Barnes presents Paul initially in the first person, this being a story that Paul is telling us. At some point, however, Paul’s own story moves to the third person, a grammatical distancing from himself perhaps. Paul is never a comfortable character. At times he seems like an alien in his own story. And that too puts up barriers for the reader. It’s as though Barnes doesn’t want us to get too close to Paul, as though he wants us to critically observe and possibly judge him. Even if the judgement he solicits is understanding forgiveness. I confess I never warmed to Paul and his unsympathetic portrayal appeared to have no further redeeming qualities. Susan, on the hand, is a sad figure who we never fully get to know. In part that is because this is Paul’s story and it’s clear that he never really gets to know Susan either, though his curious incuriousness is troubling. Maybe Paul’s love story is really a story of self love, which is rather disappointing.

There are moments here that are compelling. But the story, the characters, and especially their emotional arch never really captivate. Julian Barnes can, has, and probably will, do better. Fortunately this is not his only story. And for now it is not recommended.
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LibraryThing member miss.mesmerized
“Would you rather love more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think, finally, the only real question.”

Paul looks back at his life and the love of his life, Susan. He met her when he was only 19, she, at the time, was almost 30 years older, but fascinated by
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the boy. She was married, had her place in society, was experienced and could teach him how to love. For years they had an affair, then they ran away, and then their life crumbled and fell apart. Susan fell apart. Taking her away from her well-settled life-style did not do her good, but Paul was in love. As he had always been. She was the love of his life. His only love. His only love story. Until he couldn’t go on anymore. But loving her he never stopped, until the very end. And he could never and didn’t ever want to find another woman to love in the same way.

After writing certain kinds of biographies about Shostakovich and Sarah Bernhardt, Julian Barnes returns with a novel about the greatest topic in literature: love. And it is not meant to end well, like most of the great love stories; neither Romeo and Juliet nor Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary found the love they dreamt of and could live it.

The story is told from elderly Paul’s perspective. Many decades have passed when he remembers how it all began, but he does not judge his younger self, nor smile at his naiveté. He takes young Paul just like he was: innocent, inexperienced and with great expectations. There were adults around him telling him that he was just dreaming and naive – but this did not keep him from falling for the elder woman. His unconditional love and admiration for Susan are compelling, but the reader senses that this will not end well. However, it does not turn out as expected since Susan is not the woman she seemed to be. Taken from her natural surroundings, she is completely lost. Her roots are cut and she does not get a grip on the new life.

It is a sad story, but Paul doesn’t regret it:

“What he did regret was that he had been too young, too ignorant, too absolutist, too confident of what he imagined love’s nature and working to be.”

Julian Barnes is a great writer, he knows how to tell a story, how to pace it perfectly and he finds the right words to have his characters express themselves. What I liked especially throughout the novel was the search for a definition of what the big four-letter-word ultimately means. He concludes that it can be happy or unhappy but it surely will be “a real disaster once you give yourself over to it entirely”. Well, that’s it maybe, surrendering yourself, come what may and adhering to it.

A wonderfully told novel, sad but enchanting.
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LibraryThing member ouroborosangel
I usually don't enjoy a story with lots of exposition and very little dialogue. But it was incredibly intriguing to be inside the head of Paul, who at 19 falls in love with a 40-year-old, married woman. Where this could have come out prurient, the story is sweet and Paul's reflection on the
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relationship was interesting and full of insight. Surprised myself by really enjoying this.
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LibraryThing member Opinionated
So the problem with this is, that its not, in the end, a very interesting story. We are aware, from the outset that Paul wants to tell the story of his only love, the only story he has to tell. And the story of how he meets Susan, 30 years his senior, at the local tennis club in the village, how
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they start an affair that leads them to run away together, has its moments. It seems only marginally credible, to the jaded modern reader, that this could be more than a short term summer fling - Susan, as Mrs Robinson to Paul's Benjamin Braddock? But its not that - Susan is not the experienced older woman waiting to enveigle the naive Paul into the joys of the flesh. Both are equally inexperienced, despite Susan being married, with daughters, and the story of their meeting is an awakening for both of them - this is the 1950s after all

But from there, it all becomes rather routine and monotonous. They decamp to London, Paul starts to work, and Susan descends into alcoholism at a speed that would make Alison from Melrose Place proud. This seems a rather cheap device for pulling the couple apart - surely there are enough challenges for a young man in his 20s and a woman in her 50s to face, than this. And Paul reveals himself loyal, devoted, rather colourless, and Susan behaves like a pantomime drunk. From there it is all predictably downhill

The premise that everyone has one story to tell, however unremarkable most of their lives, is a a good one. Its just that this story beyond the initial chapters just isn't very interesting and is depressingly predictable
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LibraryThing member shazjhb
Such an amazing author who is able to pack a punch in under 300 pages. I never love his books but I remember them, think about them and wonder about the people who populate his books.
LibraryThing member thorold
Barnes seems to be deliberately teasing us by taking the most overused plot idea of the Great French Novelists, the young man / older woman love story, and shifting it to the Betjemanesque setting of a suburban tennis club in the Home Counties, circa 1960. More English you can't get! It's a vehicle
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for the requisite amount of social comedy and gentle mocking of middle-class Englishness, but it also turns out to be a platform for Barnes and his narrator to speculate at some length — perhaps rather more length than is altogether necessary — about what it means to be in love, and how everyone has a love story that defines their life in some way.

There's a lot of play with the uncertainties of memory, the way the story we are trying to tell and the viewpoint we are telling it from define the way we remember things. The narrator, Paul, whom Barnes doesn't seem to like very much, rambles around endlessly before he gets to telling us about the moments at which he acted in ways he's now ashamed of, and at times in Part III there's a distinct feeling that the book has run into the sand.

There are some very good parts in this, but you do come out of it wishing that Barnes had written it as a short story instead of a novel.
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LibraryThing member jigarpatel
Like The Sense of an Ending, a young man falls in love with a woman twice his age. Julian Barnes writes in a flowing style reminiscent of Philip Roth. The story switches between first and third person narratives to reflect the nature of the protagonist's experiences. The narrator frequently calls
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himself out as unreliable, looking back on his experiences after 50 years.

While well written, there's no climax. The story ebbs and flows, but there's no sharp, memorable twist as in The Sense of an Ending. Recommended for Julian Barnes fans, but not essential reading.
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LibraryThing member writemoves
This is a book that I intend to read again. It's a love story, a coming of age story, a tragedy...Such great writing and insights into romance, love, aging. The story starts when Paul is 19 and hooks up with a decidedly older married woman in a mixed doubles tournament. The relationship evolves
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slowly and somewhat awkwardly. Interesting characters and circumstances. This is not the usual love story found in the movies or on most bookshelves.

I read this book too quickly. It does not deserve a skim but a slow read and appreciation of the excellent writing and storytelling inside.
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LibraryThing member maryreinert
Set in the 1950's, this is the story of a romance that began when Paul was 19 and Susan was 49. Having met at his parents' tennis club, Paul and Susan begin an affair which lasts more than a decade. At first, passion rules them both although both are not sexually experienced. Susan is married to a
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cold man who hasn't touched her in years; she is the mother of two daughters older than Paul. The reaction of his parents the the tennis club are what would be expected.

The second part of the story tells of the unraveling of their affair. Having moved in together, Paul starts law school and Susan "keeps house" at times going back and taking care of affairs at her home. Reality sets in when Paul discovers Susan's secret drinking. From her things to from bad to worse; yet, his devotion to her is almost beyond belief. She becomes a serious alcoholic.

The final section of the book is philosophical as Paul is now an older man who looks back and reflects on his love of Susan. His life takes him to many places of the world; a few other women come and go, but he never makes a commitment to marriage. How does one's first serious love affect the rest of life? Does her remember clearly or are his memories clouded with what he hoped to be or what he dreaded. Basically, however, life goes on.

I loved the first part of the book; got a bit tired during the second part; and even more so during the third until the very ending. Overall, a good read; says something about devotion and memory.
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LibraryThing member bobbieharv
Got this Kindle edition from the library because I thought I loved Julian Barnes' writing, but as I look over my reviews (all of two, so I'm not much of an expert) I see I only liked "Nothing to be Frightened of," his memoir.

I liked the first part of this book, where our young college-age
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protagonist falls in love with his forty-something tennis partner. But then it devolved, and got quite tedious (as alcoholics can be!). And I found the switches among first, second, and third-person narratives also quite irritating, although one reviewer here ascribed a rather erudite explanation for them.

I only gave "The Sense of an Ending" two and a half stars, and so I guess this gets about the same.
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LibraryThing member lostinalibrary
Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less and suffer the less? That is, I think, finally, the only real question.

So begins The Only Story by Julian Barnes, a beautifully wrought look at love in the form of a decade-long affair between Paul, beginning when he was
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nineteen, and Susan, a much older woman told from the distance of fifty years. The novel is divided into three parts and told in three different voices but, throughout, it is Paul’s voice we are hearing. In the first part, he uses the first-person ‘I’ expressing the first blush of love as it grows, ‘part of the first silliness and proprietoriness of love’ - their affair is new, exciting, a secret hidden from others belonging only to the lovers. He gets to play her hero, her protector from an abusive husband.

In the second part, Susan and he run away together. As she slips into alcoholism, his love lasts but it no longer holds any of the vestiges of joy and playfulness of the first days. Paul still wants to protect her but he also realizes that he must protect himself and so he distances himself from this part of their story in the third voice, ‘he’. Finally, when it becomes clear to him that he cannot save Susan from herself, he leaves and we learn how the rest of his life proceeds without her.

We are now present with Paul in his later years when time and separation allows him to reflect on his time with Susan and on love in general and so he speaks in the second voice, the more objective ‘you’ showing both distance and a desire to understand how love has changed his life even long after the affair ended. In the end, he walks back through the years, through ‘you’ and ‘he’, ending in ‘I’ as he finally moves to goodbye and ‘the shutting of the doors’.

Julian Barnes is easily one of the greatest wordsmiths of our age. In The Only Story, he has taken what could have seemed a rather mundane love story and made it into a beautiful and sad tale about love, what it means, and how it moves us even over the long distance of time and separation. It is a story full of gorgeous imagery, often all-too-human characters and, of course, fascinating reflections on the only story - love.

Thanks to Netgalley and Penguin Random House Canada for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review
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LibraryThing member snash
A story ruminating about the nature of love and its place in life and therefore about the nature of life. Full of quotable truths. The love affair described was awkward and later painful. 4 stars
LibraryThing member lisahistory
I really wanted to like this, but even though I had great sympathy with the main character, and the story of the young man's lover's descent into alcoholism was believable, I got lost in the rambles, especially during the last quarter of the book. Some things, like the song about Tottenham, just
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seemed thrown in, as if there wasn't another book to put them in. And many of the paragraphs could have been rearranged without much change in meaning. I tried to understand the shift from first to second to third person, but couldn't find a reason for it. The many paragraphs of self-justification, self-analysis, and memory seemed repetitive. All that said, I did read it through, and there are some life lessons here about love and responsibility and the way in which love can affect the rest of your life.
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LibraryThing member camharlow2
Julian Barnes has written an extremely moving novel, full of love, but also with heartbreak. Narrated by Paul, who now in his 70s, looks back over his life in an effort to define love, but also to reflect on how it has made him who he is. Much of these reminiscences cover the decade fro when he was
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19 and met Susan at the local tennis club. She is in her late 40s, married with two daughters, both of whom are slightly older than Paul. Paul and Susan fall in love, an event that reverberates throughout their lives. Barnes’ prose captures the intensity of their feelings and also the disapproval of most of the people around them. Barnes sensitively describes how their feelings for each other gradually change as their love alters, but he questions whether it ever completely dies. Throughout, this is a powerful, emotional and heartrending book.
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LibraryThing member sidiki
A very simple plot more like a short story that was over in two thirds of the novel . The last one third of the novel he just philosophizes about love and its twists and turns. Not as good as his earlier novel sense of an ending.
LibraryThing member pgchuis
The story of Paul (19, student) and his relationship with Susan (48, married). Beautifully written and very sad. The characters were flawed and frustrating, but it was impossible not to feel sympathy for them. I wondered why Paul persisted in referring to himself as Susan's lodger or nephew so
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frequently, even once they moved to London - different times? Also, what happened to his parents?
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LibraryThing member Lynsey2
I love this author's writing style but was disappointed in the story. It failed to hold my interest and I found I cared very little for the main characters.
LibraryThing member detailmuse
Looking back from old age, Paul recounts his affair, as a care-free 19-year-old with a 50-year-old society wife and mother, that grew into a happily-ever-after first love that lasted.

"And this is how I would remember it all, if I could. But I can’t."

And so, his retelling that began with
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imaginative near-humor and angsty absurdity (for me, reminiscent of “The Graduate”), devolves with dark adult complications into tragedy and a careworn-ness beyond Paul’s years.

As in The Sense of an Ending, Barnes’s writing is full of reflective detail and emotion, here with compulsively readable sections written in a poignant second-person point-of-view that slayed me with its experiential feel. My favorite by Barnes.

(Review based on an advance reading copy provided by the publisher.
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LibraryThing member LynnB
Julien Barnes writes so well, I think I'd enjoy any story he chose to tell me.

This is the story of Paul, who at age nineteen, falls in love with a married woman twice his age. Now in his 70s, Paul is looking back over the years he spent with Susan; he is trying to find the meaning of love and also
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coming to understand the way this relationship shaped him. In this way, Paul's story is part of a universal quest we all share in to some extent -- exploring the "what ifs", coming to terms with past mistakes, learning to forgive ourselves and others. This story examines the life-long consequences of first love.
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LibraryThing member PhilipJHunt
Barnes is just such a great writer. Never wrote a book I didn’t enjoy (not read ‘em all yet).
LibraryThing member eembooks
I loved this novel and the elegant writing of Julian Barnes even though I disliked Paul whom I thought a coward, lazy and callous when the relationship falls apart. He may have had only one love story but the very last paragraph of the book sums up clearly whom Paul became. July 2019
LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
Julian Barnes has gotten very good at writing stories like this - short(ish) books that offer the summary of almost a whole life, considering one part of it in more detail than any other part, and that part usually revolving around love and a difficult love story (c.f. "The Sense of an Ending"). He
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zooms in, zooms out, places things in context, and leaves you with much to ponder.
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LibraryThing member saschenka
“Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more, or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, finally, I think, the only real question. “ Novel provides a peek into middle class England 60s/70s suburbia as backdrop for a young man’s love affair with an older woman. Unhappy in her
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marriage and life, her interior perspective is never stated; perhaps her eventual descent into alcoholism results from a “too late” despair — a love 30 years too late. POV always of Paul but shifts from first person (youth, beginning) to second person (ending of affair, older) to third (retrospective), which not many authors could pull off. Story about the nature of memory and the inexplicable nature of love; everyone has a story (The Only Story). Running theme of truth over accuracy; memory serves the greater truth, not every factual detail. While frustrating at times to not know Susan’s POV, it ultimately serves the story: we never really know another person.

“Here was a paradox. When he had been with Susan, they had scarcely discussed their love, analyzed it, sought to understand its shape, it’s colour, it’s weight and it’s boundaries. It was simply there, an inevitable fact, an unshaken given. But it was also the case that neither of them had the words, the experience, the mental equipment to discuss it. Later, in his thirties and forties, he had gradually acquired emotional lucidity. But in these later relationships of him, he had felt less deeply, and there was less to discuss, so his potential articulacy was rarely required.“ The sad truth is not that we get over an early love, but that we do. We grow up and mature against our better judgement; compassion fatigue and anger fatigue in equal measure.
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LibraryThing member Castlelass
This book tells the story of Paul Roberts, starting at age nineteen, when he meets and falls in love with Susan MacLeod, three decades his senior, at a tennis club. Susan is unhappily married and has two daughters around his age. It is set in the suburbs of London in the 1960s. The narrative is
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divided into three parts. In part one, the romance develops; in part two, Susan develops an addiction to alcohol and their relationship changes; in part three, we learn of what happened later in their lives.

This is a book for those who favor character-driven novels. It is a sad story about love, loss, and memory. It is surprisingly engrossing for one that focuses on the internal world of a young man’s mind. We follow Paul’s thoughts and rationalizations as he analyzes his and Susan’s relationship. He makes notes on the definition of love. He becomes obsessed, and his obsession has a lasting influence. He thinks he can “rescue” Susan, but as we learn more about her background, the reader can see the futility of Pauls’ efforts, though he cannot.

As the novel moves along, the narrative voice changes from first to second to third person, reflecting the ways a person’s thinking changes at different stages of life. By the end, we find Paul trying to unpick the past and figure out what he could have done differently. I have now read four of Barnes’ works and find his writing consistently outstanding.

“Things, once gone, can't be put back; he knew that now. A punch, once delivered, can't be withdrawn. Words, once spoken, can't be unsaid. We may go on as if nothing has been lost, nothing done, nothing said; we may claim to forget it all; but our innermost core doesn't forget, because we have been changed forever.”

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LibraryThing member TheEllieMo
I loved the structure of this book: the first section, covering blossoming romance coupled with teenage invincibility, written in the first person. The second section, when reality begins to bite, written in the second person, and the hardest stage of all, written in the third person.




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