REVIEW: The Only Story by Julian Barnes

It’s a good feeling to tuck into a novel and know I am in the hands of a master.  And that was certainly true with The Only Story, which describes a love affair between a callow nineteen year old youth and a 48 year old woman, married and mother of two.  It’s the voice that hooked me, this confessional sly self deprecating yet oddly passionate and sincere voice of the young man, asserting that this story, this love story, is the only story worth telling.  Here’s an example of Paul’s views on adults, too long to quote in entirety, but I’ll provide a sample: “What did I dislike and distrust about adulthood? Well, to put it briefly: the sense of entitlement, the sense of superiority, the assumption of knowing better if not best, the vast banality of adult opinions, the way women took out compacts and powdered their noses, the way men sat in armchairs with their legs apart and their privates heavily outlined against their trousers, the way they talked about gardens and gardening, the spectacles they wore and the spectacles they made of themselves….”  And he goes on for another several hundred words, hilariously. 

It surprises Paul that the girlfriends of his peers don’t welcome his relationship with a much older woman: “You might have thought – mightn’t you? – that a girl or young woman in her early twenties would be rather encouraged by the notion that something exciting might happen to her nearly three decades on”  but instead, the young women “reacted much as their parents would have done:  alarmed, threatened, moralistic.  Perhaps they were looking forward to being mothers themselves and imagining their precious sons being cradle-snatched.” Their disapproval doesn’t stop Paul from remaining devoted to Susan, however.  For as long as he can manage it, at least. It’s hard not to like Paul, not only for his voice but also for his devotion to the woman he loves. If the last half of the book sags a bit under the bitter realities that the lovers face, it’s still a great read.  The Only Story might not be the only story as far as this reader is concerned, but still, it’s a pretty engrossing one.

– JoAnn