The Only Story by Julian Barnes
Knopf, 2018; 254 pp
Reviewed by Sarah J. Schlosser
Is our greatest love story our only story? Julian Barnes seems to think so, and makes three separate attempts at demonstrating it as such in his latest novel The Only Story. In an account that starts out as a fairy tale, then moves to a more realistic revision of the fairy tale, and then wraps up as a memory, blurred, the hero Paul gives us the love of his life as a much older woman in Susan. They meet on a “draw” as thrown-together tennis partners, following their assigned fate with friendship, and then beginning an adventure as lovers, even though Susan is married with children who are Paul’s age and even though neither of them seems to have viable income. Susan is presented as someone who has reason to look for love elsewhere; her husband hasn’t really shown interest in her in nearly two decades, she has a very limited social circle to judge her actions, and she nourishes her solitary nature even after her and Paul have developed into the most intimate of relationships.
Through the fairytale beginning the reader is nearly hooked and sold on this union, but with the break of the end of the first section and the start of the second section of the novel, the reader starts to see the unraveling of what human nature can do to relationships, both in the partners and in the people around them. When Paul and Susan are banished from the country club that united them for taking up with each other, Paul often spends the night with Susan, right under her husband’s nose, which triggers violence from her husband in odd hours and unprovable events. After Susan is assaulted, Paul and Susan move out, and Susan’s coping abilities with what she left behind and her new life with Paul begin to deteriorate. She drifts into a life of drink, and Paul’s narration drifts from the first person point of view of nostalgic remembrance to suppositions of second person point of view, seeming to ask the reader, “What would you do?” Paul’s youth and inexperience may be genuinely reaching out to the reader for advice or just reaching out to trap the reader into suffering the burden of standing by his alcoholic and aging lover with him; in either case, Barnes is effective in the result of switching point of view. By the the third section of the novel Barnes has switched things up again, easing out of second person point of view and into third person, doing his best to put Paul’s narrative in a position of distancing himself from the situation and pain with Susan. Paul doesn’t appear to regret his choices with Susan in statement, and yet, regret is there in the relationships after Susan:
(O)nce you had been through certain things, their presence inside you never really disappeared. The...gas would out, in direction or another. Then you just had to live with the consequences until it dispersed. And yes, it had caused more than one girlfriend to run for her clothes...And no, at those times, he had not been much of a stoic.
Barnes’s poetic and yet realistic depiction of the baggage that relationships create sets the reader almost to hopelessness, but Paul was alone before Susan and she was not his “teacher” (her lack of experience for the twenty years prior to their meeting is restated several times), so he returns to his solitude in a way that keeps him an enigma to his small social circle as well. The Only Story circles back to start, with maybe not all of the clues for a knowing Susan well enough, but in hearing out Paul in enough ways to tell us more about ourselves. Barnes might remind readers of Updike or Roth, but at some point his love story drops into a point of rich misery that cannot be touched by other writers who set their stories in suburban settings; he truly transports us to a love story.