Julian Barnes’ The Only Story tells Paul’s story of him and his first love. He is nineteen and his lover Susan, is 48. She is married with two children, they meet at the tennis club, and from there a romance to the tenth degree ensues.
Now, you must know that I am cynical about love. I am not openly into romance (however, I do shamefully invite it so DM me if you are interested *wink*), I comedically gag at couples in the street and I don’t believe in the idea that individuals require a partner in order to be whole (you complete me, FUCK OFF). So with that outlook, it was safe to say that this novel was going to be difficult to sympathize with.
The Only Story is told in three parts and is somewhat non-linear. It is told as through memory—I found that unreliability is shown through the muddled sequence of events. Each part symbolizes a new phase in the relationship. The story is narrated in first person throughout all of part one, then 20 pages into part two it transitions into second person. It is at this point, where the narration style changes, that the reader is enlightened to the severe nature of Susan’s relationship with her husband Gordon. He is an aggressive drinker who physically and emotionally abuses Susan. At this point, Paul and Susan’s relationship enters a new phase and a new strain of reality is placed on them. From here, their perfect love story spirals. Susan descends into a severe drinking problem and Paul remains obsessively in love with her. Paul thinks that, essentially, his love will heal her. He believes so strongly that this is all she needs for her to get better, until he simply doesn’t believe that such a thing exists any longer. Part three, I must add, is told in second person, and I pondered what Barnes was trying to elicit with the changing narration styles? I settled on a growing disconnect to the truth of the relationship, but I can’t fully decide.
This book was quite the journey for me. At first, I was put off by the romantic nature of the characters (yes, I knew it was a love story going in but you don’t have to be so ANNOYING about it). A story about a happy little love, to me, is not a story worth reading. I craved conflict, complication, and something seriously problematic to happen. How can a book be so highly acclaimed if nothing happened beyond being in love, I wondered. These days, I have been putting books down if I am not seriously intrigued by 100 pages, so it was lucky that the turn of the sappiness came at just around that point.
I didn’t enjoy the projection of the idea that love is so life defining, that love is the sole purpose of our existence, and that nothing worthy exists beyond this one person. I was quite infuriated to say the least and my annotations were not very kind. I persevered because I was enjoying the writing and knew that SURELY something was going to tear this idealist nineteen-year-old off down off his high horse. Then, sure enough, it happened. I was not excited to read about the turn the events took, which were by nature heartbreaking, but it put a lot of the story into perspective for me.
Perhaps Barnes wanted his cynical readers to fall into the trap of being put off by Paul’s infatuation, only then to have the revelation of events feel thrown back into their face. I was angry because Paul was very one-track-minded. His motivation for everything and anything was for Susan, beyond my cynicism, that doesn’t seem like a healthy relationship? His obsession was so counterproductive to his best interest, well what I saw as his best interests, and the individuality of his life. Now I will not reveal specifics because no one likes a spoiler, but my feelings of anger towards Paul cleared as the story drew to a close. Through the happenings, conflict, and consequence, he slowly realized that his priority in life should not be Susan, but himself.
On one of the praise pages of this novel there is a quote from The Economist:
“A vivid dramatisation of the narcissism of obsessive love,”
and I felt as though it summed up this novel for me. I don’t think we, as readers, are supposed to yearn for a love like this but, as I have, are supposed to reflect and question it. Barnes has cleverly used this narcissism and obsessive love to show that love is not always the hero of a story and can only do so much for someone or a life. I was wholly satisfied with this novel and while it frustrated me to no end, it made me think, feel, and consider what it was trying to tell me beyond a story about two lovers.
Before 100 pages, I did not think I would like this book; beyond those 100 I was piecing together the puzzle of Paul and yearning to know his resolve of his memorialization of the relationship. Ultimately, I found his story to be more than it originally seemed. From this I think perhaps I should take this lesson: don’t judge a book by it’s first 100 pages, or do, because as readers there is never just “the only story.”
The Only Story
By Julian Barnes
213 pages. 2018.
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