First Love, Memories and How We Choose to Reflect on the Past in The Only Story by Julian Barnes

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My Review:

The Only Story by Julian Barnes is an introspective retrospective on a first love and how it shaped the narrator’s life.  I loved this thought provoking love story told many years later and the internal discussion about memories.

In part one, nineteen year old Paul is home from university for the summer and with his mother’s encouragement, he joins the local country club to play tennis.  He is partnered with Susan, a married woman old enough to be his mother.  Paul and Susan spend time together and as their lives intertwine, he meets Susan’s friend Joan, and Susan gets to know Paul’s college buddies.  Paul falls in love, Susan is attracted to him, and the unlikely couple begins an affair.  When their taboo relationship becomes public, they are kicked out of the country club.  Young Paul is energized by the public disapproval, and despite her marriage, albeit loveless, the two travel together, and they live together for over a decade. There was love and romance, and everything was so good.  This is how Paul wants to remember.

In part two Paul tells us all the things he remembers but would want to forget.  They had borders living with them in the attic, Susan’s husband punched him and on another occasion he smashed her teeth in.  Susan was an alcoholic and taking antidepressants.  The realities of life are revealed and author Julian Barnes switches narration from first person, to third person as he distances himself from intense feelings of lust and love to disappointments and heartbreak.

Susan and Paul’s non traditional relationship was a beautiful love affair and at the same time marred by lies, abuse and alcohol.  Paul discusses the idea that feeling less and lower expectations can protect you from too much emotion and hurt.  His happiness is based on Susan, but her happiness has nothing to do with him.  She is devoted to drinking and he takes that as rejection.

In the end,  Paul can’t stop Susan from drinking so he leaves her, but every time she needs him, he goes to her.  He is emotionally tethered and his love for her causes him to be angry and disgusted with himself, wondering if there is something to be said for feeling less.

The Only Story is a raw look at young love, memory and bias, and how over time you can gloss over difficult times to shape your memories.  I enjoyed the author’s retelling of Paul and his falling in love with an older woman, his all in full commitment and his naiveté, her baggage with her husband, children and her addictions, and how his love blinded him.  Romantic and sad with love, forgiveness and continual heartbreak, this story is thought provoking when it comes to how we look back at our lives and remember certain things.  Beautifully written and short in length, this is well worth the read.

An interview with Julian Barnes

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

Julian Patrick Barnes is a contemporary English writer of postmodernism in literature. He has been shortlisted three times for the Man Booker Prize— Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), England, England (1998), and Arthur & George (2005), and won the prize for The Sense of an Ending (2011). He has written crime fiction under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh.

Following an education at the City of London School and Merton College, Oxford, he worked as a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary. Subsequently, he worked as a literary editor and film critic. He now writes full-time. His brother, Jonathan Barnes, is a philosopher specialized in Ancient Philosophy.

He lived in London with his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, until her death on 20 October 2008.

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2 thoughts on “First Love, Memories and How We Choose to Reflect on the Past in The Only Story by Julian Barnes

  1. Having written a memoir, this resonates. How we construct the story of our lives is fascinating. What we leave in and what we leave out in the telling is what makes the difference.

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