Tuesday, January 28, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Only Story by Julian Barnes

I pulled another book from my TBR pile: The Only Story by Julian Barnes. I normally love this writer but I thought this book was a bit of a dud.

The narrator is a middle-aged man relating his story, which is a love story. Because he has heard, or believes, that the only story worth telling IS a love story and that everyone has one of their own, he sets out to tell us his. Because everything not directly related to the love story is considered extraneous, the novel is pared down to the essentials. Unfortunately, the story is not unique and brave and ultimately tragic, but rather is commonplace, dull, and sad.

The narrator, Paul, looks back on his life, which begins at age nineteen when he met the love of his life, Susan Macleod. She was forty-eight, married with two grown children, and was assigned to be his tennis partner at his parents’ club. They hang out after tennis, he starts driving her around, bumming around her house, going with her to concerts, and they start sleeping together. Her husband is there in the background, aware of what’s going on, as are her daughters and Paul’s parents. They are all extraneous to the lovers so are no more than sketched in.

Paul is a callow college student with no ambition and a mistaken awe of his own originality. His lover is so much older–how cool is that!. He doesn’t see what they are doing as wrong, since they are in love, and the husband is a jerk. Or if it is wrong, he is thrilled by his scandalous misbehavior. He believes his friends are impressed.

Paul remembers Susan as a quirky original, but the picture he paints of her is also shallow and dull. The relationship plods along. They don’t actually do much. Eventually, it becomes clear that Mr. Macleod is drunk and physically abusive. Susan and Paul move in together.

The relationship lasts years. Divorce is not really an option. Or maybe it is, but not one that Susan is interested in. She gets depressed. She starts drinking. Heavily. He can’t save her. He gives up and moves out. They both age. Neither has another real relationship.

The storyline is realistic. It’s objectively sad. However, I was never drawn in to care about the characters. There was not a lot of depth to them or to the relationship. The narrator likes to meditate on love. In fact, he keeps a notebook of pithy sayings but ends up crossing most of them out. That's kind of how I feel about this book, like it could be crossed out.