Rebecca's Reviews > The Only Story

The Only Story by Julian Barnes
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really liked it
bookshelves: newbury-library, read-via-netgalley, addiction, second-person, dementia, best-of-2018

(Nearly 4.5) A familiar story: a May–December romance fizzles out. A sad story: an idealistic young man who swears he’ll never be old and boring has to face that this romance isn’t all he wanted it to be. A love story nonetheless. And, as Paul believes, we each only really get one love story, and it will without a doubt be the defining story of our lives. When he met Susan, a 48-year-old, married mother of two, at the local tennis club when he was 19, Paul had no way of knowing that the little things that made up their escalating relationship – the nicknames, the inside jokes, the intimate habits – could be swallowed up by years of depression, alcoholism and dementia. This narrative is partly the older Paul’s way of salvaging what happy memories he can, but also partly an extended self-defense: he did all he could for Susan, but it could never be enough.

Barnes takes what could have been (and, indeed, has been interpreted by many readers as) a dreary and repetitive story line and makes it an exquisitely plangent progression: first-person into second-person into third-person.
“the one thing I was not going to do with my existence was end up in suburbia with a tennis wife and 2.4 children”

“You ask yourself: is staying with her an act of courage on your part, or an act of cowardice? Perhaps both? Or is it just an inevitability?”

“His love had gone, had been driven out, month by month, year by year. But what shocked him was that the emotions which replaced it were just as violent as they love which had previously stood in his heart.”

This is my favorite Barnes novel since Arthur & George; I was never that fond of The Sense of an Ending, even though it won him the (deserved, if only for lifetime achievement) Booker Prize. It’s also one of the stand-out novels of 2018 for me so far. The picture of romantic youth shading into cynical but still hopeful middle age really resonates, as do the themes of unconventionality, memory, addiction and pity. And the last few pages, when Paul sees Susan for the last time and contrasts what he knows he should think and feel with what he actually does, are just incredible.
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Reading Progress

October 24, 2017 – Shelved
October 24, 2017 – Shelved as: to-read
March 6, 2018 – Shelved as: newbury-library
March 6, 2018 – Shelved as: read-via-netgalley
May 9, 2018 – Started Reading
May 15, 2018 – Shelved as: addiction
May 15, 2018 – Shelved as: second-person
May 15, 2018 – Shelved as: dementia
May 16, 2018 – Finished Reading
May 24, 2018 – Shelved as: best-of-2018

Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

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Roger Brunyate I love your three stacked quotations, Rebecca, which make your points perfectly. I wondered whether to mention the alcoholism thing, assuming that most others would, but decided not to. All the same, doing so gives a clarity to your arc that my more coy review probably lacks.

My two favorite Barnes books are The Lemon Table and Levels of Life. R.


Rebecca Roger wrote: "I love your three stacked quotations, Rebecca, which make your points perfectly. I wondered whether to mention the alcoholism thing, assuming that most others would, but decided not to."

I read through various newspaper reviews for a Bookmarks magazine synopsis and several of them mentioned alcoholism and dementia, so I felt like it was fair game.

I've read almost all of his books, bar a few of the early novels. I think his best works are Flaubert's Parrot and Nothing to Be Frightened Of.


Roger Brunyate Yes indeed, if the big reviewers do….

I’ve not even heard of Nothing to be Frightened Of, but will check. R.


Rebecca Roger wrote: "I’ve not even heard of Nothing to be Frightened Of, but will check. R."

Oh! His memoir about fear of death. It's unmissable.


Roger Brunyate Yes, I did check, and wish-listed it. Thanks!


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