The Only Story by Julian Barnes

The Only Story

Julian Barnes

The Only Story is a piercing account of helpless devotion, and of how memory can confound us and fail us and surprise us (sometimes all at once).

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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 has long been 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 Macleod, 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, Paul looks back at how they fell in love, how he freed Susan from a sterile marriage, and how--gradually, relentlessly--everything fell apart, and he found himself struggling 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."

Advance Galley Reviews

"Don't expect too much of me." from The Only Story My mother warned me. She was thirty-eight and I was nineteen when she warned that it happens to all lovers. My aunt once pondered, "What happened to us?" while reflecting on her first love and failed marriage. We see it all the time, famous couples in the news, the couple next door. We expect everything, throw ourselves into young love trusting that the connection shared is timeless and everlasting. It is our 'only story' of love, that first love when we are young and hopeful. We think we are different from the others. "Somehow eternity seems possible as you embrace." * I was excited to finally read Julian Barnes after hearing so much about his books. I was not disappointed. I do love a quiet, introspective novel with beautiful writing and a deep understanding of the human condition. The main character, Paul, tells us his 'only story' from the vantage of fifty years, recalling his first love in all its happiness, and later pain. Paul is nineteen when he meets Susan, almost thirty years his senior. They play tennis at the local club during his first summer home from university. In a fluid, organic way, without pathos or introspection, their relationship becomes intimate. Paul becomes a fixture in Susan's life, even coming into the home she shares with her alienated husband. When Paul turned twenty-one he took her away. After recalling his early innocent and idealized love, we learn that Susan was a victim of spouse abuse. Paul recalls Susan's slipping from him into alcoholism, and lastly considers all the implications of cause and effect, culpability, and his inability to move past Susan. The novel left me heartsore. For days. I have a cousin who in her fifties slipped into early dementia from alcohol abuse. Her husband, her first love when they were teenagers, installed her in her own home, unwilling to watch her destroy herself. Of course, I thought of her. Our only story, the one great love of our life, may end when one beloved partner dies first, or it may end in disaster, heartbreak, a crippling of the emotions. We may be left to relive happy memories or to wonder how it all went wrong. Paul agonizes: did he let go of Susan, let her fall, or did she pull him down with him? Regardless, Paul is left damaged by his only story. And as a reader, I mourned with him. I received a free ebook from First to Read in exchange for a fair and unbiased review. *from Second Elegy, Duino Elegies by Ranier Maria Rilke, trans. David Young

Although not as stellar an achievement as Barnes' Booker-winning 'The Sense of an Ending', it is such a huge pleasure to luxuriate in Barnes' exquisite prose and expertly delineated characters (especially after a surfeit of dreadful experimental fiction), that I can't help but give it at least 4 stars. It tends to drag a bit towards the end, but the insights into love (and the lack thereof) make this a real pleasure to read. Am not quite sure about the use of the 1st/2nd/3rd person narration, but it didn't bother me any either. I wouldn't be surprised if I re-read it in time, and found even more to warrant further investigation/praise

We first meet Paul Roberts at 70 (give or take) years of age, looking back on his life beginning at age 19 and his grand passion with Susan Macleod, a married woman 29 years his elder. He ruminates at length on the nature of memory and its elusiveness, and as if he's addressing the reader directly, says that some event may or may not have occurred, but wasn't important in the overall picture. In fact, the minutia of detail is glossed over so completely, by the end of the book, we think we know Paul and to a lesser extent, Susan, but do we. Motivations are hazy to say the least, but love is what obsesses Paul, and the way their affair spools out is unconventional to say the least. . Also intriguing is the structure Barnes employs by dividing the story into three sections, each with its distinctive style and tone. Graham Swift, Ian McEwan, and John Banville among others have used the same method of reevaluating the past through the telescope of decades, but Barnes has honed it to a fine art. In this, he reminded me of Patrick Maldonado more than anyone else. A phrase keeps recurring: "At this distance...", reminding the reader that the words whether in first, second or third person, are all being created by Paul as an older man, looking back on his life, reassessing and attempting validation. Also, the writing is gorgeous ("This wild and shifting weather of the soul is passing through the brain and body of a mature woman.") Ironically, this book has been reviewed stronger than his Man Booker winner "Sense of an Ending," but that book had richer plot elements while this book has a richer inner life.


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