Thursday, April 19, 2018

Book Review: "The Only Story" by Julian Barnes

"First love fixes a life forever: this much I have discovered over the years. It may not outrank subsequent loves, but they will always be affected by its existence. It may serve as model, or as counterexample. It may overshadow subsequent loves; on the other hand, it can make them easier, better. Though sometimes, first love cauterises the heart, and all any searcher will find thereafter is scar tissue."

When Paul was 19 years old and visiting his family in a stifling London suburb while on summer break from university, his mother encouraged him to visit the local tennis club. While silently mocking the self-important people who took their tennis seriously and themselves even more so, he is randomly partnered in a tournament with Susan Macleod. Despite the obvious differences between them—Susan is in her late 40s, married, mother to two adult daughters, the two develop a strong bond.

Susan likes to tease Paul for his youthful braggadocio, his lack of real knowledge of the world around him and relationships, and his playful nature. Paul is utterly fascinated by Susan's sense of humor, her candidness about her unsatisfying marriage and her less-than-appealing husband, and the sense that she's not concerned or shocked by anything. After a long period of flirtation, the two become lovers.

Despite disapproval from his parents and some in the community around them, Susan and Paul carry out their relationship hidden in nearly plain sight. He spends a great deal of time at her house, being routinely welcomed and abused by her husband and daughters, and Paul wonders if everyone knows the truth and chooses not to delve too deeply, or if they're fooling everyone. An idealistic young man, he dreams of running away with her one day, rescuing her from the life she seems unhappily chained to.

"One of the things I thought about Susan and me—at the time, and now, again, all these years later—is that there often didn't seem words for our relationship; at least, none that fitted. But perhaps this is an illusion all lovers have about themselves: that they escape both category and description."

When the couple finally does flee to London and move in together, at first it seems like the realization of their (mostly Paul's) dreams. He has escaped his parents' disappointment and helped free Susan from a loveless and occasionally abusive marriage. But little by little, the cracks in their relationship begin to show themselves, the differences between them magnify, and Paul realizes that there is deeper unhappiness in Susan than he ever could imagine.

In The Only Story, Julian Barnes provides a meditation on first love, on the most impactful relationship in our lives, and how it shapes our later views on love, relationships, happiness, and trust. It's a longing, nostalgic look at what seemed like simpler times, before we realized what a hold the world had on us, and how factors beyond our feelings for one another can affect our relationships. It's also an insightful commentary on obligation, desire, commitment, and emotion.

Barnes is really a magnificent writer. I absolutely loved his book The Sense of an Ending (see my review), which I read seven years ago. But while I marveled at Barnes' use of language, emotion, and imagery, I didn't find this book particularly captivating. I was drawn in by the subject matter, but it moved very slowly, and meandered quite a bit. Paul also had a way of being coy with his narration, which frustrated me.

May-December romances are familiar literary fodder, and today, we're just as apt to read stories about younger men and older women, with the man being more affected than the woman. While Barnes definitely brings a few new twists to this age-old trope, I wish that The Only Story had a little more spark for me, so I could remember more than just how beautifully told the story was.

No comments:

Post a Comment