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The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
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Nov 10, 2011

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bookshelves: for-kindle, 2012, reviewed
Read in May, 2012

Tony Webster is a shallow douchebag.

First of all, let’s get something straight. I don’t believe people should be judged too harshly for behavior they exhibited in adolescence. That’s not to say that people are not responsible for actions they committed in their youth; it just means that their actions as teenagers do not necessarily reflect the kind of people they will become as adults. So my problem with Tony Webster isn’t that he was an asshole in high school. In fact, I’d probably be a bit hypocritical to judge him in that context because I might have been a asshole myself at that age. Maybe. But I can assure you I am not an asshole now and if I’m to be judged on the kind of person I am, I’d like for that judgment to consider me only in my current adult state, please. No, the problem with Tony Webster has nothing to do with his high school self—it’s the fact that over the course of forty years, he has not changed one single bit.

As Tony divulges the circumstances surrounding a pivotal juncture in his youth, he would have you believe that his best friend was a disloyal SOB, his girlfriend a Cutthroat Bitch, and he perfectly justified in telling them both to fuck off. And perhaps he was. Again, that is not the problem I have with Tony Webster. Even that he holds on so tightly to warped memories as reasons for his past behavior (which are really justifications) is something I do not hold against him—we all do that to a certain extent. It’s called self-preservation. But where I start having issues with Tony is where he begins to dwell on these events and obsess over these people he hasn’t seen in decades in a way that is not normal or healthy. If his reasons were sincere, if he actually felt like he needed to atone for something, then I might understand. But that is not what he’s doing. No, he wants to ingratiate himself into these people’s lives, forty years later, just so they can be left with a positive impression of him! See, Tony might think he has you convinced he’s grown and matured into a considerate human person, but the only one he’s convinced is himself, because Tony is in fact the same self-serving bastard he was when he was fifteen. It does make you reconsider his life details in a new light, though: his failed marriage, the distant relationship he has with his daughter, his pathetic lack of friends. I mean it’s one thing to be an unreliable narrator, but here we have one who’s delusional, too.
History is not just the lies of the victors; it is also the self-delusions of the defeated.
The final straw for me was when he (view spoiler).

This book does present an interesting supposition, though—that past events are easier to understand from the historical perspective, the fact that one can see an event in its entirety, more objectively, and from various angles with the passage of time, which allows for a more accurate account of that event. In other words, it’s hard to maintain a clear perspective on something while in the thick of things. Although the narrator uses this to justify his own shallow behavior, I thought it was a pretty enlightening concept nonetheless.
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Reading Progress

05/20/2012
50.0% "We live in time, it bounds us and defines us, and time is supposed to measure history, isn’t it? But if we can’t understand time, can’t grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history—even our own small, personal, largely undocumented piece of it?"

Comments (showing 1-34 of 34) (34 new)

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Jason That's very possible. But I think in this case, Tony was talking about his own history. Although (so far), I don't think the idea of "progress" can apply to Tony, either. :)

I know you already read this, but I'm holding off reading your review of it until I finish.


message 2: by Richard (new)

Richard Derus See, Tony might think he has you convinced he’s grown and matured into a considerate human person, but the only person he’s convinced is himself, because Tony is in fact the same self-serving bastard he was when he was fifteen.

My problem in a nutshell. I never finished the book because of it.


Jason Now that I've finished this, I can say that the idea of progress definitely does not apply to Tony Webster. Grand total character development of zero. Also, I am reading through the comments of your review now... it's funny that my opening line is basically what Lisa was jokingly mocking. I swear I did not see it before I wrote that or I might have chosen a different (but no less derogatory) opening phrase!


Jason Richard wrote: "My problem in a nutshell. I never finished the book because of it. "

Actually, it's what I liked about it. I like hating characters.


message 5: by Richard (new)

Richard Derus Heh. I can't invest enough energy in someone who never changes to hate him. I can, if necessary, hate the author, like I do Neil Gaiman after he did the same blessed thing Barnes did here. American Gods is the best idea ever spoiled by stupid characterization.

But I think Barnes's successes with me immunized him from a thorough hating. Like literary cowpox.


Steve I agree that Tony was an unreliable narrator, did something regrettable as a younger man (for which we'd all take a Mulligan), and was fairly clueless throughout. But I was also a bit more sympathetic towards him at the end. Maybe it's because I'm a born self-editor myself. It also seemed unfair that Veronica chastised him for never understanding her or her situation since she withheld vital information that might have given him a clue.

You bring up good points about his failure in his relationships with his ex-wife and his daughter, though. There wasn't much evidence of growth or self-knowledge until the very end, if even then.


Jason Steve wrote: "It also seemed unfair that Veronica chastised him for never understanding her or her situation since she withheld vital information that might have given him a clue."

This is true. A lot could have been avoided if Veronica weren't keeping secrets. But in her defense, she didn't owe Tony anything. Frankly, I don't even understand why she agreed to meet with him. The thing that nauseated me about Tony was how badly he wanted to get on her good side again. It was pathetic! If he felt the need to self-edit due to some perverse sense of 40 year-old remorse, then just do it and move on. But I don't think his goal was to actually amend anything, it was more to make things so that nobody could have anything bad to say about him, and that's an interesting difference.

Steve wrote: "There wasn't much evidence of growth or self-knowledge until the very end, if even then."

Exactly. In fact, it almost seemed like he was deluding himself into thinking he had grown when he clearly had not.

I think a lot of people in life take the "peacable" approach to things, and that's fine...I mean it's boring and sorta sad, but I think we all do it to a certain extent, so it's understandable. But Tony takes it a step too far and he never really seems to ask himself, "Why am I doing this, exactly?" I think this is what made me less sympathetic toward him, even if it were really just me trying to distance myself from a possible side of myself that I don't want to know.


Jason Caris wrote: "Very nice review. Though it was incredibly frustrating, I appreciated the lack of development in Tony's character. He didn't fit in the real world, which made him just as frustrating to the other c..."

Thanks, Caris. The thing that's concerning, though, is that I think it's possible he does fit into the real world, or at least partly. I think it's good to recognize that horrible character flaw, though. It makes it easier to keep it in check.

Tony Webster: the guy you do NOT want to emulate.


Jason I don't know, Caris, I think this year I'm going as an accountant. :)


Steve Haha! Maybe you can get a briefcase with JP Morgan Chase stitched on the side as a prop. That could be scary.

"Hedges? Hedges? We don't need no steenkin' hedges!"


Jason Elizabeth, we'll be chatting a lot next week—my book club is starting one of your favorites.


Jason Haha, it looks like my reputation for sarcasm precedes me, but no, this time I was not kidding!


Jason Indeed!


Jason Thanks for the tip, E. I am definitely looking forward to this.


Cecily I agree that Tony has an unhealthy obsession with people from his past, but I don’t think he’s especially unusual in that – even to the extent of wanting to ingratiate himself with those who hurt him. I know people like that, and they kept it up for decades.

I also agree that he’s an unreliable narrator – but so does he: he constantly tells us how unreliable memory is, including his own (I picked out numerous quotes in my own review). For me, that made quite an interesting dynamic, but each to their own.

A different opinion often makes a more interesting review.


Jason Hi Cecily,

He's probably not too unusual in the sense that he dwells so much on being well-thought-of by people from his past, but to me it's sort of a loser-ish, juvenile quality that doesn't make him appeal to me as a character. If we are supposed to identify with Tony, then the author has failed because I definitely don't. But actually I had assumed that we were meant to find Tony repulsive, but I guess I can't speak for Barnes on that one.


Cecily I often prefer books where I don't like or identify with the main characters, but maybe I'm weird. ;-)


Jason No, me too. I enjoy hating characters. It's very cathartic somehow. Although my poor wall...


Jason I should hope so, Elizabeth. As long as we're all in agreement that Tony does not represent the average male, I'm OK with Barnes's depiction of him.


message 20: by Jennifer (aka EM) (last edited Jun 14, 2012 06:54AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Jennifer (aka EM) I still struggle with my take on this one: if Tony is so deeply deplorable, and provokes such strong emotion, isn't that a testament to Barnes' writing? Doesn't that make this a fabulous book?

I love to hate hateful characters and usually see that as a sign of authorial mastery. But here, I felt the whole thing was icky. Almost like Barnes himself liked his character way more than the reader did. Intended his readers to feel the sympathy for him that Barnes does, in fact.

Somehow, in my mind, it's not enough to be a really good character portrait ... especially an accidental one.


Jason Jennifer (aka EM) wrote: "Almost like Barnes himself liked his character way more than the reader did."

That is the head of the nail right there, which you just hit. I agree the writing is good, and I do love a good character study and even enjoy hating hateful characters if they are done well, but you're right about that icky feeling. I do like this book, I just don't love it.


message 22: by knig (new) - rated it 3 stars

knig Concur with your take on Tony, and would add: the whole drama/plot twist where Veronica's mother bequeaths Tony the diary is absurd, especially given (view spoiler)And why would Veronica even bother communicating with him 40 years on? All she had to say was 'sorry I lost it' via her lawyer, and game over. Just, too much melodrama.


Remittance Girl I'm pretty sure that you have given a fair summation of 'Tony then and now' and I'm quite sure this was exactly the author's intention. Tony's just as busy measuring his worth by what people think of him now as he was in his adolescence.

What the book doesn't answer for me is my 'So what?' question. He's just described half of the human race, in the shadow of 20 years of lit fic writers who've done the same thing.

As a user of language, he is undoubtedly a wonderful writer. I just wish he, like a lot of other contemporary lit fic writers, would apply their writing skills to something I care about.


Gary  the Bookworm I really disliked this too. I am anticipating-and dreading-reading it again for a book group. I am trying to consider alternate points-of-view but I can't get past the idea that Tony is an unredeemable prick. Any review that supports this conclusion seems legitimate to me.


Jason Thanks, Gary. Fortunately Barnes made it pretty easy—Tony's a hatable guy.


message 26: by Chris (new)

Chris Jason wrote: "Now that I've finished this, I can say that the idea of progress definitely does not apply to Tony Webster. Grand total character development of zero. Also, I am reading through the comments of you..."

I don't really agree with you on this. I didn't think that this was a perfect novel by any means, but I thought Tony's character was a fairly accurate portrayal of a man caught between the past and the present. In terms of character development, Tony is first depicted in the novel as a young, proud, and entitled person (but I don't think that this is very different to many adolscent boys and girls today, especially those attending private schools as he did). He gets married and his wife cheats on him, yet they are still good friends - I think this shows he has developed at least a little and shed some of his pride. He is retired and yet he still works at a hospital library, visiting sick and dying patients recommending books for them - facing others and his own mortality regularly also shows a certain level of humility. In his correspondence with Veronica, he apologises a few times about the contents of the letter he wrote when he was younger - again,showing lack of pride and humility in his ability to recognise his own faults.

You were rather critical that he wrote to Veronica through emails, though Tony did ask his solicitor for her contact deatails and she refused to give them, after Mrs Ford left him some things in her will. He found her number in the phone book, though she didn't seem interested in striking a conversation with him (fair enough). But I don't believe that feeling a 40 year remorse is "perverted"; it would be perverted if Tony didn't feel remorse over the contents of the letter he wrote. And perhaps more perverted is Veronica who still blames and is angry with Tony (who genuinely wants to understand and make things right again) for a letter he wrote in his foolish youth; not to forget her vengeful acts of giving him a single page of Adrian's diary that ends when his name is mentioned. The fact is, even if Tony hadn't written the letter telling Adrian to speak to Mrs Ford it is possible that he would've met her anyway and the same outcome might have eventuated. I personally found Tony a little pretentious at the beginning of the novel but as he becomes increasingly reflective and critical of his past, he become more endearing and easier to sympathise with. Also he becomes increasingly desperate to atone for, or at least understand, the past which i think signifies a great development in his character.


Jason Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Chris. When I talked about Tony's perverse sense of remorse, I meant it in the context of his needing some form of redemption from a person who (it seems to me) would really rather not have anything to do with Tony. The redemption he was looking for was more for his sake, so that he could be comfortable with himself again, not for the sake of the person he wronged. At least, that's my impression. And I think that's misguided, especially for someone at his age.

I'm already a little hazy on the details, but the letter I remember Veronica being angry about isn't something I'm sure she's still angry about in her adult years. I think we find out at the end that she has reason to be angry for a huge host of other issues for which Tony plays no part. Like, in her world, Tony is nothing. And to me, Tony is conceited for believing he plays a significant role at all in Veronica's world. I think that's what I'm critical of him for. I don't identify with that grandiose sense of self and so I therefore don't really identify with Tony at all.


message 28: by Carey (new) - added it

Carey Shea I have this book on my to-read list. But after your review and others, I am not sure I want to read it. I enjoyed reading everyones opinions.


message 29: by Lisa (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lisa Farallo Does nobody know a person who has not changed over the course of their life?!!? I know a few....The reason why Tony is the way he is because he has played it safe his whole life and managed to live to be in his sixties


Remittance Girl Lisa wrote: "Does nobody know a person who has not changed over the course of their life?!!? I know a few....The reason why Tony is the way he is because he has played it safe his whole life and managed to live..."
These days, I think it is possible to do that by accident.


Jason I think there are ways that you could 'stay the same' that would be cool, like the fact that you like to collect stamps or that you send out Christmas Cards in November. But when you don't grow out of the youthful mentality that the world revolves around you, that's when I start to lose respect for you as a person. Because it's really not cool to me to stay the same in that regard.


message 32: by Albert (new)

Albert Gomperts Elizabeth wrote: "Didn't the idea of "progress" in History die out in the seventies when it was found to be super-racist, classist, xenophobic, etc.?"
In the UK this is often known as "Whig History". Although few academics practice it, there are plenty of popular writers and TV programme makers who have no hesitation in adopting it.


Dolors I really liked that spoiler, felt exactly the same way.
Nice review!


Sandra Turner All the characters are flawed, that's what makes it relatable. Adrian was not able to accept his flawed humanness and chose to exit rather than live with the consequences of his actions and the ensuring guilt. Tony is you, me, all of us. We just don't get it.


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