The Only Story: A novel

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Julian Barnes’s most recent novel, The Only Story, explores whether first love defines or destroys us. In the case of his protagonist, Paul, the answer is somewhere in between.

Home for the summer after his first year at university, 19-year-old Paul is bored by the conventional and buttoned-up world of his parents’ home and his hometown, referred to as the Village. In the Village, older men are boring and stuffy, older women are repressed and sad, and the young are all, slowly, moving toward those fates. But destiny intervenes one afternoon when Paul is paired, at random, with 48-year-old Susan MacLeod, a married woman with an innocence and a wit that enraptures Paul. Over more than a decade, their lives are entwined in friendship, in love, in dependence, and in pain.

What Barnes gets so right in The Only Story is the evolution of feelings about first love. As Paul first falls in love, in section one of the novel, he believes all lovers are truthtellers. He sees meaning and truth, philosophical and literal truth, in the mundane and innocuous moments he and Susan share. In section two, as he ages and their relationship intensifies, he senses love is perhaps more nuanced than he immediately knew. But it is in the last section of the book, when Paul is older than Susan was when they first met, that his ruminations reach their climax and the resolution becomes clear. Barnes masterfully builds Paul’s experiences through shifts in point of view, always focused on Paul, but changing from first to second to third person at different times to show how aging is a process that is both within and without. As Paul ages, he is experiencing his memories and his past in a new way, filtered through the lenses of nostalgia and wisdom rather than the fever pitch of naivete when he first lived those moments.

This novel is a brilliant and beautiful exploration of what it means to fall in and out of love, and it is a poignant reminder that who we become as adults is almost always borne of who we loved, and who loved us, along the way.

Reviewed By:

Author Julian Barnes
Star Count /5
Format Hard
Page Count 272 pages
Publisher Random House Canada
Publish Date 2018-Apr-17
ISBN 9780735274730 Buy this Book
Issue July 2018
Category Modern Literature


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