The Only Story - Julian Barnes

Review :

"Don't expect too much of me."
from The Only Story

My mother warned me. She was thirty-eight and I was nineteen when she warned that it happens to all lovers. My aunt once pondered, "What happened to us" while reflecting on her first love and failed marriage.

We see it all the time, famous couples in the news, the couple next door. We expect everything, throw ourselves into young love trusting that the connection shared is timeless and everlasting.

It is our 'only story' of love, that first love when we are young and hopeful. We think we are different from the others.

"Somehow eternity seems possible as you embrace." *

I was excited to finally read Julian Barnes after hearing so much about his books. I was not disappointed. I do love a quiet, introspective novel with beautiful writing and a deep understanding of the human condition. The main character, Paul, tells us his 'only story' from the vantage of fifty years, recalling his first love in all its happiness, and later pain.

Paul is nineteen when he meets Susan, almost thirty years his senior. They play tennis at the local club during his first summer home from university. In a fluid, organic way, without pathos or introspection, their relationship becomes intimate.

Paul becomes a fixture in Susan's life, even coming into the home she shares with her alienated husband. When Paul turned twenty-one he took her away.

After recalling his early innocent and idealized love, we learn that Susan was a victim of spouse abuse. Paul recalls Susan's slipping from him into alcoholism, and lastly considers all the implications of cause and effect, culpability, and his inability to move past Susan.

The novel left me heartsore. For days.

I have a cousin who in her fifties slipped into early dementia from alcohol abuse. Her husband, her first love when they were teenagers, installed her in her own home, unwilling to watch her destroy herself. Of course, I thought of her.

Our only story, the one great love of our life, may end when one beloved partner dies first, or it may end in disaster, heartbreak, a crippling of the emotions. We may be left to relive happy memories or to wonder how it all went wrong. Paul agonizes: did he let go of Susan, let her fall, or did she pull him down with him

Regardless, Paul is left damaged by his only story. And as a reader, I mourned with him.

I received a free ebook from First to Read in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

*from Second Elegy, Duino Elegies by Ranier Maria Rilke, trans. David Young


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