Book Review: The Only Story by Julian Barnes
“First love fixes a life forever,” writes Julian Barnes in his 13th novel, “The Only Story.” In the case of his protagonist, Paul, there is no getting over his first relationship, even now reflecting back on it nearly half a century later. It’s the 1960s in a bedroom community outside of London still hewing to 1950s norms, when Paul, back from college for the summer, finds himself partnered in a mixed-doubles tournament at the local club with Susan Macleod, an unhappily married mother of two. Paul is 19, Susan 48, and it begins with his innocently offering her a ride home. She asks, “But what about your reputation?” He says he doesn’t have one. And she replies, “Oh dear. We’ll have to get you one then. Every young man should have a reputation.”
It would seem we’re on our way to a comic novel — the setup calls to mind “The Graduate” — and the first half of the book does cover the furtive kisses and afternoon romps, the lying and blundering concealment of the illicit affair of this most unlikely couple. There’s the usual Barnesian wit and observations, the small-town muffled chatter, the inevitable banishment from the country club by way of passive-aggressive letters in the mail, and a cuckold, Susan’s husband Gordon, who at first seems to have stepped off the lot of “The Benny Hill Show”: She calls him “Mr. Elephant Pants,” “Mr. E.P.,” and she hasn’t shared a bed with him in years. “Short, fat guy,” someone at the club says of him, and speaking of his golf game, adds, “Hits the ball as if he hates it.”
Gordon is the picture of the betrayed fool trying to keep up appearances, but increasingly also of repressed fury. And though Paul is in too deep to care, he begins to recognize that it’s not just the golf ball his lover’s husband hates: “It was his anger. We didn’t do anger in my family ... we did the thing enjoined upon the English middle classes for generations. We internalised our rage, our anger, our contempt.” But the slow boil of Gordon’s rage will generate the steam that propels the plot. He’ll take his anger from the golf course to private rooms, and drive the star-crossed lovers out of the trap of Susan’s broken marriage into a new trap of her and Paul’s own making.
“The Only Story” reads at first like other books in the Barnes canon, in the way it combines complicated relationships with a limpid, unfussy style, brilliant wit with sorrow, an obsession with love and its shelf life, and a commitment not only to great storytelling but also to exploring how stories are told. There’s his funny but
wrenching 1982 novel “Before She Met Me,” about a lecturer jealous of his new wife’s past, and a wonderful pair of novels, “Talking It Over,” from 1991, and its sequel “Love, Etc.,” from 2000, about a triangle between a woman and two former best friends. One of the characters in the latter book has a theory where he sees the world as divided “into people for whom love is everything and the rest of life is a mere ‘etc.,’ and people who don’t value love enough and find the most exciting part of life is the ‘etc.’”
For Paul, love is “The Only Story,” and his first love, in particular, the only one “that matters,” the only one “finally worth telling.” Looking back, he sometimes struggles to remember, and the fallibility of memory, its failure to capture the full picture, is another theme, as if love itself were as elusive as our efforts to bring it back to life. “I said a bit ago that ‘This is how I would remember it all if I could. But I can’t,’” Paul thinks around the midway point. “There’s some stuff I left out, stuff I can’t put off any longer. Where to start?”
From here the novel plunges into darker, sadder places than Barnes’ work often goes. Gordon Macleod comes unhinged and there are hospital visits. Susan descends into full-blown alcoholism, and as sometimes happens in stories that feature alcoholics, the cycles of drinking and covering up the addiction become just that on the page, a recurring pattern that puts a drag on the narrative. Perhaps recognizing this, Barnes shifts to the second-person point of view, and the reader is addressed, engaged, even made to feel complicit. This makes up for the occasional repetitiveness, and Susan’s collapse ultimately feels like a necessary part of the lesson Paul must learn: that more often than not love doesn’t last, and the most ardent believers can spend a lifetime trying to understand why.
Porter Shreve is the author of four novels, including “The End of the Book.” Email: email@example.com