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

Julian Barnes writes brilliant characters. This story is slow but the characters are completely engaging.

The Only Story by Julian Barnes reveals the heartache of a May-December romance. The first part was beautifully written detailing the highs and lows of the romance between a young man and a middle-aged woman, who meet at a tennis club. The story focuses on the couple as they are ostracized by most of their friends and family, but accepted by a few. The really tender moments come when abuse by Susan’s former husband is revealed. I did not care for the change of tense midway through the story.

I tried so very hard to get into this book, but it thoroughly bored me. There was no hook to get me interested in the character, and the shifting point of view just made it that much harder to follow and engage with. Reading it actually seemed a bit tedious to me, and I found it challenging to reach the finish line. [This review is based on an early access copy provided by the publisher via First to Read.]

The Only Story by Julian Barnes is an intelligent, thought-provoking piece of art about time and how it changes the way we view relationships and love. We follow Paul, a 19-year-old boy who falls in love with an older, attached woman named Susan. The story of this relationship is second to the creative technique Barnes uses to tell the story. In the first third of the story, Paul is speaking in a first person narrative. We are feeling what he feels and seeing Susan the way he sees her. He even mentions that "first love always happens in the overwhelming first person. How can it not? Also, in the overwhelming present tense. It takes us time to realise that there are other persons, and other tenses." Ah, that's brilliant. Paul believes that understanding love is for later in life, but now is for the "...lustful cockiness, the joyful rant, the calm seriousness, the hot yearning, the certainty, the simplicity, the complexity, the truth, the truth, the truth of love." Part two takes you to their next station in life, moving in together. Now you switch to reading the narrative in the second person point of view. This shift is subtle at first but eventually you begin to see a bigger picture than you were afforded with Paul's first person narrative. Part three, as you can probably guess, is told in third person. By this point the reader was able to see the truth in the Paul/Susan relationship much clearer. And yet, they were left wondering, which view was more correct, more true? Which joy was more pure, which pain more intense, and were the choices that these characters made leaps of joy or errors in judgement? Perhaps this is the only way to write a story about love. Because love cannot be defined or contained or categorized as heaven or hell. Love simply is, and all we can do is peer into it with different lenses and gaze in awe at what we see. Thank you Julian Barnes for reminding us of that.

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. That question right there…the first line in the book, sums up this novel quite well. We quickly learn about his first love and clamber through it swiftly. How does a 19-year old student falls in love with a much older lady he met randomly at the tennis club while on break from university? The author does a wonderful job rationalizing and (over?) analyzing it. Not only does the protagonist fall in love for the first time, he’s also turning into a man. A lot of deep thoughts and realizations. But, the suffering…oh, the suffering! He loved so much, he can’t let go. And, he hangs on and on until he just can’t bear it any longer for his own sanity. And, it drags on and on until you want to shout, “Go! Get out!”…but, when does the brain overturn the heart? It was painful, as it should have been. And, the author does a perfect job of transitioning this pain as his narrative moves from first person (engaged) to third person (detached); from participant to observer. I received an advanced copy of this book in electronic format from in exchange for an honest review. This review is also posted on

I never read from this author before but this was a A very good and well written novel. This novel is very different from my reading taste so it took a while to get into too but by the middle I was starting to enjoy it more. A solid 3 star read for me. Thanks to First to Read for giving me a copy for review.

When Paul first met Susan, he didn't know he would fall in love for life. He just needed a tennis partner. But you know how it is in tennis. You start with love and go from there.  Paul was home from university, a 19-year-old home to waste some time, relax and enjoy life, and irritate his parents. Susan was a married woman with two daughters almost Paul's age. Although her marriage would never be considered happy, it was the 1960s, and couples stayed together. It how things were done, especially in small villages in England.  But then Paul and Susan were matched by the tennis club for some mixed doubles, and what started on the court moved into a larger arena. This is their story, told by Paul. It's their love story, the only story. The age difference never bothered Paul. He was young and thought love would be enough.  He decided to study law after university, and he and Susan found a place to live in London. And the years start to take their toll on them as individuals and on their relationship. In turns funny and heartbreaking, charming and challenging, playful and sorrowful, Julian Barnes' The Only Story is a beautifully composed novel of all the hopes and promises that we bring to relationships and what happens when they start to fall away.  Told by Paul decades after the relationship, The Only Story is a slow unfolding of flirtation and attraction, of falling into love and falling into bed, of growing together and growing apart. It's a narrative of great love, great sacrifice, and great expectations. I feel like I'm not doing it justice, but the truth is not much happens. It's not one of those books where there is a lot of action or suspense. There are just human beings, thinking things and feeling things and experiencing things. It engages your brain, certainly, but more than that it engages your soul. This is a honest story, told without pretense, designed to make you feel all the things and remind you of everything that is amazing and heartbreaking about being in love, being in a relationship, and being a human. Julian Barnes, who won the Man Booker Prize for his novel Sense of an Ending (and was nominated for 3 others, including one of my favorites, England, England), writes a languorous novel of love and reality, and it can help heal the damage that we all encounter in life. I don't know what else to say except this: read it. It will make you a better, more understanding person. And it will make you happy.  Galleys for The Only Story were provided by Random House through their First To Read program, with many thanks.

Narrator shifts made the book hard to track at times and only having the unreliable perspective made that even harder to gauge what was happening. This was an interesting well written book, but definitely not a fun read. It's a thin line, but there are times 'good literature' can be challenging, entertaining, and captivating, and this was challenging and well done, but a dry at times.

I did not like this book. This is one where if you liked The Sense of An Ending then you would like this one too but if not you probably won't. This is because they are similar types of stories. The older woman, younger man love story appears in both but this one goes so much farther. A 19 year old man falls in love with a middle-aged woman and they start a relationship that everyone seems to know about. Eventually she leaves her husband and moves to London with the boy. Over the ten years they are together she becomes an alcoholic with major depression and this kid doesn't know how to deal with it. I ultimately did not care about these two people nor did I find the story in anyway believable. But like I said, if you liked The Sense of an Ending then you will like this one too, if not you probably won't.

4 stars From some late state in mature life, Paul finds he still believes that “love is the only story” and feels compelled to tell the story of how in his youth at 19 years he took up fulfilling that mission with gusto in his love for one Susan McLeod. That she was nearly 30 years older than him made for some interesting challenges to his ideals. Though we’ve seen age disparities in books and movies before, I’ll admit it was a challenge for me to suspend my disbelief with that many decades of difference. But the inevitable conditioning to more easily accept an older man and younger woman pairing and my desire not to be ageist in matters of love spurred me on to submerge myself in this rendition. It all starts with Paul learning to play tennis at his parents’ country club in their suburban upscale community outside of London. He has a great time partnering with Susan in doubles and appreciates her feistiness, her self-deprecating humor, and her wit at the expense of aristocratic pretensions. She laughs at life, this is part of her essence. And no one else in her played-out generation does the same. She laughs at what I laugh at. She also laughs at hitting me on the head with a tennis ball; at the idea of having a sherry party with my parents; she laughs at her husband, just as she does when crashing the gears of the Austin shooting brake. Naturally, I assume she laughs at life because she has seen a great deal of it, and understands it. Her husband seems an alcoholic buffoon and takes little notice how much time he and Susan spend together as companions. That her husband turns out to be periodically abusive to Susan and even to Paul helps convince Paul of the rightness of crossing the line to a secret love relationship with Susan. Because of her many years of a sexless marriage, she is in many ways a novice at love as much as Paul. Of course, the delicious blossoming doesn’t stay secret for long, and some hard rain falls from the community, Paul’s family, and Susan’s grown daughters, who are close to Paul’s age (tagged as Miss G. and Miss N.S. for “Miss Grumpy” and Miss Not So (Grumpy). Damn those torpedoes! Like Paul, we the reader have a vested interest in seeing their relationship work, even though we can see likely tragedies lurking down the line. Paul makes a respectable story for himself and struggles to bend his sacrifices into fitting with that story. I joined with him as an “everyman” narrator as he nobly tries to pin down the core lessons and truths gained from attempting to live for love. All the aphorisms and famous quotes from literature are weighed from his experience. I felt keenly the thin ice he encounters when the accumulated evidence of fallibility of his memory emerges. Are his castles made of sand, his jousting against windmills? Does his ultimate ambivalence makes his raison d'etre a fool’s playbook? I felt Barnes nursed out a lot of lasting truths about love, which is hard to accomplish these days given the vast river of literature delving into the subject. I felt some of the same pleasure from Krauss’ “The History of Love”, though that one was more playful and fanciful. Paul here defends the wisdom of going with loves flow at first without analysis: The lover, in rapture, doesn’t want to “understand” love, but to experience it, to feel the intensity, the coming-into-focus of things, the acceleration of life, the entirely justifiable egotism, the lustful cockiness, the joyful rant, the calm seriousness, the hot yearning, the certainty, the complexity, the truth, the truth, the truth of love. Truth and love, that was my credo. I love her, and I see the truth. It must be that simple. Here we get some of his insights about the fear of love ending always seeming to intrude and take over the story any couple tries to build: I didn’t realize that there was panic inside her. How could I have guessed? I thought it was just inside me. Now, I realize, rather late in the day, that it is in everyone. It’s a condition of our mortality. We have codes of manners to allay and minimize it, jokes and routines, and so many forms of diversion and distraction. But there is panic and pandemonium waiting to break out inside all of us, of this I am convinced. …The panic takes some to God, others to despair, some to charitable works, others to drink, some to emotional oblivion, others to a life where they hope that nothing serious will ever trouble them again. The business of judging one’s life in retrospect has a lot in common with the two other books by Barnes that I’ve read. In “The Sense of an Ending”, a middle aged man puts out a lot of nostalgia over his life’s course and reveals his account of bad behavior in the past to be unreliable from biased memory. In the “Noise of Time”, an account of the interior life of the Russian musician Shostakovich also shows a man struggling to contrive justifications for the sacrifices and compromises he made to succeed in the Soviet system, to the detriment of integrity and fairness to his family. Paul is definitely more charming, fundamentally good, and lovable compared to these other two lead characters. The undertow he comes up against is specific to his trajectory, but it felt universal as well. This book was provided for review through the “First to Read” program of Penguin Random House. Posted to Goodreads:

"The Only Story" is about a man in late middle age who is reminiscing about his life, in particular about his love affair as a very young man with a much older woman. The narrator considers that the story of one's great love is the only story worth telling. The form that this book takes is very similar to that of "the Sense of an Ending" which is also largely about an older man looking back on his youth. I was engrossed by this book. Julian Barnes is such an excellent writer. After 19 year old Paul begins his affair with Susan, it becomes obvious fairly quickly that their relationship was not going to end well. It lasted for about a decade, which is longer than I had anticipated, but the last few years were very difficult as Susan sinks into alcoholism. After the break-up Paul seems to lower his expectations as to what life had to offer him. He moved from place to place, never really becoming involved or settled . It seems that he made that one gamble, starting a life with Susan, and when that failed he avoided any further deep emotional involvement. It was sad, really. He had what he saw as a great passion when he was young and afterwards did his best to disengage from life.

Meditation on love, age and memory, but mostly love. Like Sense of an Ending - a book I loved - this book also has an unreliable narrator, and the shifts between first-, second- and third-person narrative were significant. But despite the engaging authorial voice, the book felt tedious at times. I wish I could read Susan's story.

4 stars Thank you to Penguin's First to Read and Vintage Digital for allowing me to read this book. In this wonderful rendition of a young man in love with an older woman Barnes once again does a masterful job. Much like the premise of The Sense of an Ending, we see the older man looking back on his youth. We see how the youth was shaped into a man by the experience of his first love. As he reminisces we see how his perspective changes throughout the years. We see his memory revisit his first love - and how he changes as time and circumstance move forward. Julian Barnes is an excellent author. His prose is like closing your eyes and letting a mesmerizing melody float you away. You see his characters - you understand his characters - you live along side his characters. The only problem I have with a Julian Barnes novel is the last page. I am always sad when his stories end.

Reading Julian Barnes is like putting on another human being. This book was no exception. His story moves slowly, like a river, full of hidden things and deep, roiling waters. I loved the narrator's voice, how it captured the know-it-all youthfulness that became the weary excuse-making and denials of the "mature". We all want to be singular and special, even in our misery, even in the misery of others. Yes, this story has been told a million times. But not in this voice, that is rather like one of Holden Caulfield's peers going on past Holden's own story into the adulthood that awaits us all.

I have been vacillating on what to write in this review. The book is about a years long romance between a nineteen year old boy and a much, much older married woman. It includes some interesting perspective on looking back on life and love, which is what this author excels at, however, it is also extremely boring at times. I also felt like the whole situation felt highly improbable so I had a hard time taking it too seriously at times. I did finish it, though, and enjoyed some of his insights so my overall three star rating feels warranted. I received a digital ARC of this book through the First to Read Program.

This was the first book I read from this author. It took a while for me to get into it since i couldn't really understand the relationship and what was so special about this older woman. I think that the writing was poetic, however extremely repetitive. This was definitely something that I will not be recommending since I found it to be indulgent and wishy washy. Thanks for the ARC, First to Read.

Dry, Coy, and Shallow......... Like everyone else who read this book I was very taken by the opening lines, and was easily convinced that this would be the Julian Barnes book that I would finish and rave about. Well, I finished it. The May-December premise is as dry, lifeless, banal and predictable as you might suspect. For all of the narrator hero's claims early on to youthful exuberance and rebellion, his observations are mostly callow and tediously self-absorbed, and if it's possible to have plodding whimsy, well, that's what I got from it all. That, and a strange undercurrent to the effect that female weakness was pretty much responsible for almost everything that didn't go well in our hero's life. The central conceit is that we are reading the reminiscences of an elderly man regarding the love story that was the central pillar of his life. It left me appreciating why the more alert wedding guests avoided the ancient mariner. Paul's story, "only story" though it may have been, was neither novel nor interesting. The book has a tripartite, three ages of man, structure, built around changing the pronouns used by/about the hero. But going from "I" to "you" to "he" is a matter of structure, not content, and everything here of substance just struck me as shallow and rather lifeless. That said, there are several engaging set pieces and a number of appealing, if rather forgettable, lines. The author can turn an elegant phrase, and there are lots of bits that an admirer could underline. Ultimately, that wasn't enough for me. (And lines like "Sad sex is the saddest sex of all." didn't help.) (Please note that I received a free advance will-self-destruct-in-x-days Adobe Digital copy of this book without a review requirement, or any influence regarding review content should I choose to post a review. Apart from that I have no connection at all to either the author or the publisher of this book.)

I couldn’t get into this book and ultimately stopped reading after 50 pages. The book is very British, which is interesting but difficult as I do not understand the slang. I also found something remote about the writing. The portion I read is about a love affair, but I didn’t feel the emotion coming off the page that I would expect. It wasn’t fully realized for me.

This is the solidly beautiful examination of a young life and love by an old man. He tells his one story, the love story that defined his 20s, an affair with an older woman. It has a carefree (careless?) beginning and then gets very complicated, full of suffering and sadness, but still love. They are both looking for safety in the storm of life. And, as he keeps repeating, they begin as tennis doubles, and the most vulnerable location in doubles is right down the center. Paul is fully aware that he made mistakes, that he wanted things to go differently than they did, that he wanted to be a hero that he wasn't, that sometimes cowardice wins and naivete can ruin you. And when he gets really uncomfortable with his own story, he switches in to second person, to try to pull you in further, to make you forgive him, to force you to see it from his perspective. All in all, a stirring story beautifully told. There's a lot to think about with this one, and despite the narrators claim to want nothing of the sort, he spins a good story. I got a copy to review from First to Read.

This was an interesting read. It was like discovering the inner workings of someone else’s love story - a kind of voyerism we are rarely privy to in real life. The POV shifts were interesting and added a special dynamic to the storytelling. I found myself agreeing with so many of the observations especially about the cliched lines about love, about relationships, about our retelling of them. I liked the slow unfolding of the story, the way it mimicked memory and our retelling of events especially as we move further and further away from the event itself.

While I appreciated Julian Barnes' obvious talent as a writer, this story just wasn't really my cup of tea. I found myself skimming towards the end.

This book has some interesting ideas, but the execution of the novel leaves a lot to be desired. The rationale for the author’s movement back and forth between first person, second person, and third person narrative - all while holding to one narrator’s point of view - is not clear, and ultimately the maneuvering becomes a distraction. The storyline is itself thin - a young man becomes involved with a married woman 30 years older than him, the relationship and the woman deteriorate, and his entire life is marked or marred. The author uses the story as a platform for his own extensive musings on the meaning of life, love, and relationships. The novel becomes tedious and overwritten by the end.

Julian Barnes writes beautifully and reading his work is always a pleasure. This is certainly true of The Only Story. However, for me the story was lacking. I had no trouble with the beginning and the young man with older woman affair, but some of the later parts of the book got repetitive and dragged, which should not happen in such a short novel. It seemed like it started as a love story and ended as an addiction memoir. Still, I could recommend this for most literary fiction fans who like beautiful writing and don't mind a bit of navel gazing.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. It was a beautiful rendering of what it means to fall into love and what happens when the lust is over and we begin to evaluate our lover in the bright light of day. I felt that there were parts that dragged on a bit too long and impeded the story. I was a bit confused at the change of person in the writing of part 3 and am not certain how all this “ philosophy of love” really fit in with the story. It was my first time reading this author and left me feeling rather undecided about whether I would be interested in reading more of his work.

Why would a boy barely out of his teens fall for a married woman in her forties? “She laughs at life, this is part of her essence. And no one else in her played- out generation does the same. She laughs at what I laugh at.” The Only Story is a book about memory. Paul, now in old age, is remembering. But the relationship came apart. How well does Paul really remember? “So, that familiar question of memory. He recognized that memory was unreliable and biased, but in which direction? Towards optimism?” Lots of good questions in this book. Possibly Julian Barnes at his finest.

The beginning of the book I found the writing style a bit contrived. It felt forced. We are hearing Paul's reflections on his first love a few decades removed from it's inception. As with his memory, the writing seems a bit flighty. As the tone of the relationship changes, the writing seems to ease and becomes more harrowing, in a good way, as serves the books turn. It is a bit repetitive in some points for some reason that doesn't seem to help drive the book. *Spoiler of sorts* The story is ultimately melancoly in nature and never re-gains its hopeful youth. The narrator and subject of the book does not believe in the grandness of redemption and thus there is none to be had for the book. The narrator is unsentimental about the past but is obviously deeply affected by it. The writing is beautiful and insightful in parts and just full of itself in others. Overall, I apprecited the story for what it was.

Barnes is no doubt a talented writer, and he had me intrigued from the start, but I do wonder if this would have worked better as a short story. I enjoyed Part One, where Paul and Susan’s relationship starts. I found myself laughing out loud at points - Paul doesn’t shy away from pointing out his naivete and immaturity, but this section is also peppered with an innocence and thirst for love and acceptance that was at times heartbreaking. As an older Paul reminisced, you could sense both admiration and sadness...a foreshadowing of what was to come. Part Two was were it started to go downhill for me - I just started to lose interest. For everything that was happening between Susan and Paul, there was a complete lack of emotion in Paul’s memories - whether this was deliberate or not, I began to care a little less about seeing where this story went. Part Three was repetitive and filled with a whole lot of quotes on love and life and happiness and just dragged. I kept thinking about throwing in the towel, but then somehow a particular turn of phrase from Barnes would suck me back in for a few pages. A few years ago I remember reading A Sense of An Ending and thinking it was well written. I could not even tell you what it was about today though. I have a feeling The Only Story will have the same fate...I’m thinking Julian Barnes just isn’t for me.

First loves are always special and are usually complex. Paul's first love, at nineteen, is lively, engaging and just happens to be married as well as almost thirty years his senior. Susan's marriage is empty, her husband abusive, and her own daughters nearly grown. Meeting through the local tennis club, Paul becomes entranced with Susan and their love affair begins and blossoms right in front of Susan's family, the tennis club and Paul's own parents. After discovery and being kicked out of the tennis club, Susan lives with Paul as he returns to school in London. Through the ensuing years, Paul struggles to maintain his memory of the woman he met and to stand by Susan as she loses herself to alcoholism, taking much of their love with it. While Paul is finally able to break free of the relationship physically, his heart is no longer willing to open itself to potential partners and his mind remains entangled in the past, trying to sort through the memories of the past and understand where it all went wrong.

Having enjoyed Barnes's _The Sense of an Ending_, I was all in for the first 80 pages of this novel, which is broken into three parts. I finished all three, but found myself skimming, as the book's themes repeated often as if in refrain. That said, I read closely enough to notice the effective perspective changes. In Part One, the 19-year-old narrator, Paul, finds himself paired with Susan, a 48-year-old who is married with two daughters, both older than Paul. As they begin their love affair, Paul narrates in the first-person: "I think there's a different authenticity to memory, and not an inferior one. Memory sorts and sifts according to the demands made on it by the rememberer." In Part Two, the narration shifts primarily to the second-person POV, a less intimate perspective in keeping with the distance coming between the lovers, as well as Paul's shift from inward focus to focus upon Susan and the life they've set in motion: "You discover more about sex than you want to -- or more than you should be allowed to discover while still young." Finally, in Part 3, the appropriately distant third-person to convey the lapse in lovers' intimacy as well as the time elapsed: "Susan had pointed out that everyone has their love story. Even if it was a fiasco, even if it fizzled out, never got going, had all been in the mind to begin with: that didn't make it any the less real. And it was the only story."

This book was hard to get into. While the story sounded enticing, the writing voice was dry and hard to follow. I found my attention wandering often during reading.

This book drew me in for the first part, but then I lost interest as the story continued. Fans of the author will likely find this one to be okay for them, but I just didn’t care for the writing style. Thank you for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review

Julian Barnes has a way of sneaking up on you, drawing you in to a novel that soon has your full attention. THE ONLY STORY is a coming of age, in a way, as protagonist Paul and all his late-teen lust falls in love with a neighbor much older than himself. He is the narrator, telling the story as he looks back at a romance that shaped his adult life, for better or worse. It's difficult to write a review without spoilers because so much pops up, events sprinkled throughout the narrative that prompt page turning, but what becomes of Paul is told so well that I can only recommend the book. The prose is the sort that feels effortless, as if the author just sat down and let the words flow. And it's a fairly short novel, perfect for a quiet weekend's read when you want to delve into a study of a fascinating character.

I rather enjoyed the reminiscing feeling of the plot and the wise story of the character along the decades. I would think it wise if teenage boys would get their hands and have the patience to read this book, it's both funny and sad, it's realistic. There are some parts which are a bit off and can bore the reader, but all in all I'm glad I finished it because everybody has a love story to tell.

Julian Barnes gives a fresh take on what, as the title admits, is the only story we all have to tell: love, loss, and the making of ourselves through our relationships with others. A fast, worthwhile read.

First love does fix a life forever. All other romantic loves are measured against it and sometimes disappoint. It sets a standard that can't be met for many reasons. This book told the story of one such first love. Very much enjoyed reading it.

This book encompasses all of the life stages into a relationship. From being a 19 year old boy who falls into love/lust with a 48 year old woman and the heady rush of early love. On to the excitement of deceiving your families while you find ways to be together, the joy of finding a place to live, the pain and torture of not being able to stop their addiction. Domestic violence and drinking are common topics in this book about a young man's journey through a relationship as told entirely from his POV. The writing is good although I would've liked to see the story from someone else's POV as well.

I fell into a nice rhythm with "The Only Story" in the first fifty pages, when I fell under the spell of Julian Barnes' writing and drifted merrily along. But two days later I realized I hadn't thought about the book since I put it down and had to remind myself to get going again. This became something of a pattern--once I picked it up, I was charmed enough by Barnes' writing to continue, but the story meant so little to me that I forgot it completely as soon as I put it down. There's a definite disconnect in the material here. Barnes' narrator implies that love is the only story that matters, and that he is telling the story of his first love--perhaps his greatest love, even if only because it was the first. But there doesn't appear to be anything special about this relationship. He and the married, older woman he begins an affair with have zero passion, little chemistry, and while some of the curious obsessions Barnes has his narrator focus on (circling her wrists with his fingers, playing with her outer ear and studying it intimately) are portrayed with devotion, they come across as... odd. They certainly don't lend the sense of urgency this book is sorely lacking. I confess I made it halfway through and forgot to pick the book back up for a week, so I decided not to continue.

I enjoyed Barnes' "Sense of an Ending" and so was delighted to pick up his latest novel. I enjoyed the beginning of the novel and found the early retrospective observations poignant and meaningful. However, the 'love' story itself was not particularly stand-out to me and perhaps it was not meant to be for an observer -- as the book says, "We tend to slot any new relationship we come across into a pre -existing category. We see what is general or common about it; whereas the participants see— feel— only what is individual and particular to them." I can't say that I really enjoyed reading this book, as there's not a lot to like about the characters themselves or the lives they ultimately lead; but I can appreciate in retrospect the story and how it was written (sometimes with excessive meandering and repetition of facts and phrases) to demonstrate the struggle of finding the truth in our "one story" via our telling and retellings of it.

Just finished Julian Barnes novel,”The Only Story” and I would definitely read some other offerings by him. Since the novel is rendered solely from the narrator’s perspective , It didn’t help to see this character as foolish and out of his league. I just wasn’t connecting with him and found myself looking at the page count and anticipating my escape. Despite the good writing, and heartfelt thoughts, I kept thinking I would have enjoyed knowing more of Susan’s perspectives but I guess that would be her Only Story.

This new novel by Julian Barnes resembles some of his earlier novels like Sense of an Ending. And it's something of a bookend with his first novel, Metroland. We're back in the well-heeled middle-class around London and the narrator Paul is a college student when he first meets the great love of his life – an older woman at the tennis club. It’s a place he was reluctant to go but boredom wins. He is fascinated by an older woman in her 40s and Susan becomes the great love of his life. The story is recollected when Paul is an old man and he is certainly dry and detached about much of his life. He is almost cynical about his revolutionary thinking as a young man but is obsessed with remembering the long affair. And the remembering is key. Paul doesn’t narrate in a straight line. His memories shape how we see all the other characters and they change over the course of the story. Of course, as an old man Paul is destined to be disappointed. His original fascination with Susan becomes dread, even loathing, as he sees her sink into alcoholism and he falls out of love. The details of the plot might sound dull and even repetitious for fans but this novel is beautiful and should definitely be on your reading list.

This book has a seemingly simple premise, a young man in a relationship with an older married woman, but this turns into something much deeper and even tragic. It's about love and memory and duty. The story is narrated by the young man, Paul, now much older and looking back at his life. We go through the first scenes of his love affair with Susan, how he feels proud of their rebellion against societal mores, then as they run away to start their life together, and then eventually as alcoholism takes over Susan's life. Along the way Paul muses on what it means to love someone, the effect of one's past on others and one's future. I found myself completely absorbed by the writing and questions raised. Like other reviewers, I found the structure of the novel very interesting and coincidental with Paul's involvement in his relationship at the time - we start in the 1st person, then directed to the reader, then the third person before finally reverting the first person. The end was definitely poignant and I feel like this is a story which will stay with me. Thank you Penguin for the ARC!

The story of Paul and Susan reads like a cautionary tale. As Paul reflects back on his pivotal relationship with Susan, an affair which took place in his twenties, he dissects the blossom and fade of love. Barnes’ writing is always inciteful and humorous despite weighty subject matter and this novel is no exception. Exposing the May/December romance between young Paul and the older, married Susan, Barnes protectively encircles his pair of lovers, slowly peeling back the layers of their story, as if to shield them from judgement. This is no mean feat. The story is one laced with domestic violence and alcoholism and the romance is made murky by the menacing shadows of each. As always, Barnes makes poignant observations throughout, pointing out love is never absurd and neither are its participants; society imposes rules and ideals and love “slips past them”. Overall, this is a bittersweet love story told with empathy and compassion that will resonate with those who enjoy contemplating the “What if life had a do-over?” option. Thanks to Penguin Random House for a digital ARC of Julian Barnes' THE ONLY STORY.

I typically do not read love stories. They bore me. But when Julian Barnes writes a love story there is nothing typical about it. From the concept of the story to the treatment of it. I loved this book. Paul falls in love with Susan and then spends his whole life living around that love. The whole tale of Paul and Susan’s love over time is revealed in layers of their personalities and the people around them. Julian Barnes has some very incisive revelations to make. It is a beautifully told saga of love between two most unlikely people.

"It may be unfair but it also happens to be true." I received a copy from this ebook from in exchange for an honest review. The first part of this book was really strong. The last two didn't resonate with me quite the same. Each part of the book is written from a different perspective (1st, 2nd, and 3rd) as we follow Paul as he grows up. The relationship between Paul and Susan has a sinister tinge given the age difference and that feeling only grows as the book progresses. We learn more about their relationship as things unfold and while the writing is beautiful and their struggles feel real I didn't love the writing style and where the book goes in the end. That being said the book captures young love and infatuation so well. It's hard not to feel for Paul as the truth is slowly revealed and we remember what it's like to be that young.

This is a story of first love in retrospect. To quote a line from the book, “I am a boy: she is a woman of middle years.” If you haven’t yet discovered the profound writing of Julian Barnes, you are missing out. It is some of the most thoughtful writing i’ve had the pleasure of reading. “The Only Story” is not a mystery but rather a character driven page turner. The characters are so fully developed you will feel their joy and their pain. It is a story of love and duty. I was lucky enough to receive a digital advance reader copy of this book, but I will buy the hardback and read it again so that I can underline all the parts I loved the most.

From the very beginning, this book was like a punch to the gut. There were so many passages where I found myself having to stop, take a breath, and reread because there was so much to unpack. This book had a lot of truly poignant moments. I thought the first part was truly excellent and I couldn't stop reading. However, the latter two parts lost my interest. Once I had about fifty pages left, I found myself skimming. It wasn't very interesting to me to see Susan spiraling. It was sad and not in a particularly meaningful way. While i wouldn't read this again, there are some passages that will stick with me for a long time. Barnes's gift for language is clear, but I think this book faltered because it lacked forward momentum.

"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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