“Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think, finally, the only real question…Most of us have only one story to tell. I don’t mean that only one thing happens to us in our lives; there are countless events, which we turn into countless stories. But there’s only one that matters, only one finally worth telling. This is mine.”
So the reader begins their journey down the rabbit hole of Paul and Susan’s relationship. However, this is no ordinary love story that focuses on rainbows and “notebooks” and happily-ever-after endings. It’s a searing look at how we love/hate ourselves — and our partners.
Julian Barnes, the Man Booker Prize-winning author of The Sense of an Ending, does a masterful job of documenting a fictional story about a nineteen-year-old English student back home for the summer after his first year of university. Paul joins a local tennis club and is soon teamed up with Susan, a mid-forties housewife and mother of two, for a mixed doubles tournament, and a romance quickly blossoms.
Unlike The Graduate (film) or Cougar (TV show), The Only Story is neither an intergenerational story that begs the question: mother or daughter? Nor is it a superficial glimpse into the lives of a young man with an older woman.
Instead, it is a beautiful tale of how disastrous we as individuals can be in the pursuit of love and the deflection of hardship. It also happens to feature some of the most beautiful prose I’ve read since Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. Case in point:
“An entry from his notebook which had survived several inspections: ‘In love, everything is both true and false; it’s the one subject on which it’s impossible to say anything absurd’. He had liked this remark since first discovering it. Because for him it opened out into a wider thought: that love itself is never absurd, and neither are any of its participants. Despite all of the stern orthodoxies of feeling and behaviour that a society may seek to impose, love slips past them. You sometimes saw, in the farmyard, improbable forms of attachment — the goose in love with the donkey, the kitten playing safely between the paws of the chained-up mastiff. And in the human farmyard, there existed forms of attachment which were just as unlikely; and yet never, to their participants, absurd.”
The book is set in three parts, starting in the 1960s and culminating sometime in the 21st century (dates aren’t used, so the reader needs to be astute to cultural markings and historical events). What’s also interesting is how Barnes fluidly switches between the first, second and third person in the narrative. Rather than confuse the reader, it provides a unique angle to the words being written: subjective or objective? Heartfelt or surgical in precision? Real or imagined?
One of my favourite quotes from the story comes right near the end, when Barnes writes the following:
“‘We’re all just looking for a place of safety. And if you don’t find one, then you have to learn how to pass the time’. Back then it had sounded like a counsel of despair; now, it struck him as normal, and emotionally practical.”