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The Only Story

Julian Barnes

The dust cover of Julian Barnes’s latest novel, The Only Story, hints at the subject matter: scattered around the title, in a smaller and different font, are the words “Love is.”

The book opens with a powerful question:

Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? This is, I think, finally, the only real question.

Paul, the narrator, quickly points out that it is not a real question, because we don’t have the choice. He continues:

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.

It’s the Sixties. Paul, nineteen, is home for the summer from university. He is quickly bored with the sedate life of his hometown, a South London suburb known affectionately as The Village by all its residents. His mother encourages him to join the local tennis club. There, he quickly forms a friendship with the much older Susan Macleod. At first, their relationship is platonic. Susan is married, after all, and has two daughters, both older than Paul. But, as happens, their friendship quickly develops into a passionate love affair.

In the first section of the book, Paul tells his story of falling in love with Susan. Their affair upsets the conservative community in which they live. Paul and Susan are expelled from the tennis club, and run away to the city to set up a home together. In the second section, Paul reflects on his time with Susan, and on what he has learned about love, and what he is still discovering about life. In the final section, Paul distances himself as his relationship with Susan breaks down. There are flashbacks, new memories revealed, and fresh interpretations of what happened to their love and their lives. And why.

Barnes’s writing is hypnotic. The Only Story gently bubbles along, touching on this and that, but, in the process, revealing great insight into how a love can fill our lives and still leave us with questions.

Julian Barnes received the 2011 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending. He has written twenty-one novels and his work has been translated into more than thirty languages.


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