"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"--
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.
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 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.
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
"And this is how I would remember it all, if I could. But I can’t."
And so, his retelling that began with 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.
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.
I liked the first part of this book, where our young college-age 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.
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.
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.
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 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