Jeffrey Keeten's Reviews > The Sense of an Ending

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

really liked it

I had never really intended to read this book, and I certainly had no intention of owning it.

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I was browsing in a B&N sitting out a winter storm in Lincoln, Nebraska and ran across of stack of The Sense of an Ending with BOOKER PRIZE WINNER blazoned across the front of the book. I dug through the stack of third printings and there near the bottom was one book with BOOKER PRIZE NOMINEE on the cover. Well it is sort of cosmic for a collector such as I to find one first American edition in the pile. Small chance of the book ever being a collectible, but it is almost impossible (mental hindrances) for me to buy a later printing of a book. Being 20% off helped me throw it on my pile for the check out counter.

Well about 20 pages in I was shaking my head and muttering to myself about the $20 bill I lit on fire to buy this book.
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What Barnes wrote about English Prep school was stale, as stale as a saltine cracker I found in the glove box of my pickup. (The mystery is I don't remember ever eating saltines in my pickup.)

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Luckily Barnes moved on to more interesting material.

Tony Webster is a guy of average intelligence who was arguably the least interesting member of a group of rather bright friends. In particular, one friend, Adrian was head and shoulders above the rest with a true philosopher's mind that earned him a spot at Cambridge. Tom was always trying to understand Adrian and always felt as if he was not seeing the picture the same way as his friend. "Adrian had a better mind and a more rigorous temperament than me: he thought logically, and then acted on the conclusion of logical thought. Whereas most of us, I suspect, do the opposite: we make an instinctive decision, then build up an infrastructure of reasoning to justify it. And call the result common sense."

At prep school Adrian was the star impressing his teachers with lines like this. "History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation." No big surprise that Tony spends the rest of his life seeking Adrian's approval. Their relationship becomes rocky when Tony's ex-girlfriend, Veronica, starts dating Adrian. Veronica's favorite line to Tony is "you didn't get it then, you don't get it now and you will never get it". She is one of those people that think everyone is supposed to understand what is in her head and refuses to give even the most minuscule bit of information to help Tony know what is motivating her decisions. Even though she is incessantly disrespectful to Tony he sees her as more intelligent, more hip than he is, and is always attempting to better himself in her eyes.

Reading a fragment of Adrian's diary 40 years after he killed himself, Tony, now in his sixties still finds himself in need of validation. "Had my life increased, or merely added to itself? This was the question that Adrian's fragment set off in me. There had been addition--and subtraction--in my life, but how much was multiplication? and this gave me a sense of unease, of unrest."

I won't discuss the hook of the story, the SHAZAM moment where everything becomes clear, but I must say my estimation of the book changed as the story moved forward. At only 163 pages I felt that the early pages spent at the prep school could have been skipped and made the story closer to flawless. A few flash backs would have sufficed to give the reader the background necessary to follow the plot. I will close with one more bit of introspection from Tony.

"Someone once said that his favorite times in history were when things were collapsing, because that meant something new was being born. Does this make any sense if we apply it to our individual lives? To die when something new is being born--even if that something new is our very own self? Because just as all political and historical change sooner or later disappoints, so does adulthood. So does life. Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn't all it's cracked up to be."
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
December 10, 2011 – Shelved
December 10, 2011 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-26 of 26) (26 new)

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Gary So, are you saying I need to read this????? LOL!


Jeffrey Keeten Gary wrote: "So, are you saying I need to read this????? LOL!"

Hey it won the BOOKER. I'd say good return for the time it takes to read it.


Gary I have never heard of it before............... but yeah, the booker....


Jeffrey Keeten Gary wrote: "I have never heard of it before............... but yeah, the booker...."

That is the beauty of goodreads.


Arun Divakar Jeffrey, that last set of lines you picked from the book seem so common place yet it took Julian Barnes to nail it down ! I gotta read this one.


Jeffrey Keeten Arun wrote: "Jeffrey, that last set of lines you picked from the book seem so common place yet it took Julian Barnes to nail it down ! I gotta read this one."

I hope you enjoy it Arun.


Marialyce i loved it too!


Jeffrey Keeten Marialyce wrote: "i loved it too!"

As you can tell from my review I was worried at the beginning, but it really grew some literary teeth as the pages advanced.


Marialyce Yes, it did. I think it has been one of the best books I have read this year. It touched me in so many ways. I thought it so deserved the Booker.

Great review btw....


Jeffrey Keeten Marialyce wrote: "Yes, it did. I think it has been one of the best books I have read this year. It touched me in so many ways. I thought it so deserved the Booker.

Great review btw...."


Thanks Marialyce that means a lot to me coming from someone who loved the book.


message 11: by knig (last edited May 06, 2012 12:32AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

knig My reading experience was exactly opposite to yours: I enjoyed the first half tremendously and the second half not at all. In particular, the characters stopped acting like real people. Why would Veronica's mother bequeath Tony the diary? It makes no sense. Tony was a bit player in Veronica's life and met the mother only once, twenty years ago. And, once Tony realises that Veronica does not want to give him the diary, and in fact is as mad as a hatter, why would he continue pursuing it? the emails, the clandestine meetings: you'd think it was an MI5 operation. Was he bored? I wouldn't have pursued it. And, I understand you don't want to give away spoilers, but the Shazzam moment had nothing to do with Tony, after all, which makes me circle back to the question why was he bequeathed the diary in the first place. What about Veronica? Why would she take the time and trouble to play cat and mouse with Tony? She could have just said 'sorry I threw the diary out by accident' in the very beginning instead of getting the solicitors and Tony all worked up. In conclusion, it could have worked better if Tony was more of a 'direct' player in subsequent events.


Jeffrey Keeten Knig-o-lass wrote: "My reading experience was exactly opposite to yours: I enjoyed the first half tremendously and the second half not at all. In particular, the characters stopped acting like real people. Why would V..."

The reactions of people to literature is so cool. I thought the English school boy beginning of this book has been written about many times before. I didn't find Barnes's version particularly interesting. My complaint was really with the first 20 pages not the whole of part one.

Tony was obsessed with Veronica. He would have done almost anything to spend more time with her. I have known a 'Veronica' and the games you talk about, and I think you find to be unrealistic, are in my experience very realistic. Tony was puzzled over the legacy as well. I think the mom liked Tony and didn't really like Veronica very much. She didn't mind making Veronica squirm and maybe she wanted Tony to know all so that he wouldn't be a sideline player anymore as he had been with this group from the beginning. I thought the point of the novel was the fact that Tony was not a 'direct' player in events, but always wanted to be. Tony is like the guy that was part of a championship basketball team, but never actually played a minute on the floor. He still thinks about that experience all the time and yet wonders for the rest of his life what he could have done different to actually get to play.

All of this gave Barnes a reason to examine Tony's life or let Tony examine his life. You can say was he bored? Maybe, but really he'd never settled up with his 'not being good enough to be on the team'feeling from those years when he was a satellite person to Adrian and Veronica's life. Plus the whole mysterious part of the legacy. Wouldn't you be interested? Wouldn't you feel that yet again Veronica was keeping you from knowing what you needed to know to be a true part of the group? To me Tony's life was about the fact that he was there, but always felt like he didn't see or didn't understand what he needed to know to be on the playing field with Adrian and Veronica.


Marialyce I just have to add that I think (at least in my own self) that I am always interested in friends, both girls and boys, of my past. I believe as we get older the "what ifs" of life became important as we like Tony look back and reflect. I find his interest as well as Veronica's playing her game very believable. She was what I thought of as a control freak. Everything was on her terms solely, she dictated all. I did not find her actions towards the diary and Tony to be out of character at all.

Perhaps it is because we have more time to reflect....children are raised, work is winding down, life is slowing a bit and time is now on our side more that I feel we look back sometimes with happiness, but perhaps also with regret as well.


message 14: by Mark (new) - rated it 3 stars

Mark Great review and yet all i am going to contribute to the thread is to say 'congratulations on finding that first edition'. I am with you all the way on that one. It is a great joy, especially if you stumble across it totally unexpectedly.


Jeffrey Keeten Mark wrote: "Great review and yet all i am going to contribute to the thread is to say 'congratulations on finding that first edition'. I am with you all the way on that one. It is a great joy, especially if yo..."

Thanks Mark. I don't have the time I used to have to stop in used bookstores. A couple of years ago I, on a whim, stopped at a paperback exchange in Hastings, Nebraska and found a run of John Dickson Carr hardcovers in dust jacket. This led to a conversation with Otto Penzler owner of The Mysterious Bookshop in NY and also the creator of Mysterious Press. He is a legend http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/27/nyr... so I was a bit tongue tied to begin. I did manage (despite my fumble butting around) to trade him the books for some jacketed Van Dine's that I was missing. It turned out to be a great experience.


message 16: by Mark (new) - rated it 3 stars

Mark Really interesting article. Thanks. My little book room pales somewhat. I was in NY in 2003 for three days and went to one bookshop called 'the strand bookstore' which trumpeted that it had 9 miles of books on its shelves. I remember picking up an American first edition Muriel Spark for 10 dollars which amazed me. i felt almost that I was robbing them


Cecily I rather liked the school section (though be aware that in England, "prep school" is a fee-paying school for under-11s or under-13s), and I liked the fact I didn't like Tony very much, but overall, it was the language and imagery that made me love it.


Jeffrey Keeten Cecily wrote: "I rather liked the school section (though be aware that in England, "prep school" is a fee-paying school for under-11s or under-13s), and I liked the fact I didn't like Tony very much, but overall,..."

Yes I ended up really liking this book after, what was for me, a slow start.


Patrick QUASI-SPOILER








I feel like I can relate to Tony because he wasn't someone who could read between the lines. That Adrian could--too cleverly--actually lead to his downfall which was tragedy despite the false reason he gave for his actions. He scored points while Tony was on the sidelines. He was a match for Veronica for this reason. Tony's peaceable nature "saved" him but he can't escape his responsibility in this tragedy. He ultimately is responsible in some way for the downfall of the two characters whose approval he sought. He is not directly responsible but through a chain reaction or accumulation. He did not see his importance and is not able to live in peace after seeing the results of some critical decisions he made. And how he chose to forget them. Perhaps if he had read between the lines with Veronica her life would have turned out differently. But her life took a totally different turn and Tony does not get it. And he does not get the totality of it all until nor does he get a sense of when its too late until the end. That was life... What the hell happened? I thought I was the good guy. We can never predict in youth the cumulative effect of our actions and where they will land us in our older age esp. with our limited minds calling the shots based on inadequate information. Yet we still must take responsibily.


message 20: by Harry (new)

Harry I liked this review, Jeffrey. Different tone to it. Or is that my imagination?

But I do think that last quote could be written simpler, don't you? LOL


Jeffrey Keeten Harry wrote: "I liked this review, Jeffrey. Different tone to it. Or is that my imagination?

But I do think that last quote could be written simpler, don't you? LOL"


This is an older review one written before I really knew what I was doing. I fool myself into thinking I do know what I'm doing now. As far as the last quote you are always wanting fewer words Harry. :-)I'm not a poet. I like complex sentence structures even a bit of purple prose doesnt bother me. Haha


message 22: by Jan (new)

Jan Rice When I read what you said about the SHAZAM moment, I was thinking, OMG, what if I read it & don't get it?!? Could happen...

And re your last quote, I thought that's the attitude teenagers had to develop about their parents, to impel them to leave the nest. Will have to think about this other application (maybe by reading the book!).


Jeffrey Keeten Jan wrote: "When I read what you said about the SHAZAM moment, I was thinking, OMG, what if I read it & don't get it?!? Could happen...

And re your last quote, I thought that's the attitude teenagers had to ..."


It is always hard to predict how anyone will react to any book. For me Don Quixote is so mind numbing repetitive that I haven't as yet been able to completely read it. There are people that declare it their favorite book. Go figure. We all have different experiences. We've read different books. So for one reader a SHAZAM moment might be because they read a certain book five years ago that gave them a specific connection with a moment in time in another book. It is similar to a butterfly flapping it's wings and causing a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. :-)


message 24: by Jan (new)

Jan Rice :) I'll just have to trust. Thanks, Jeffrey.


message 25: by Bill (new)

Bill Kupersmith Would you post a hidden spoiler & tell what the SHAZAM moment was because I read the entire book & somehow missed it. I thought the book a big tease.


Lynda For me an emotionally desiccated read


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