Book review: The Only Story, by Julian Barnes

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Paul and Susan meet at a tennis tournament, at their village sports club, when they get randomly paired together. He is “only nineteen”, is not interested in British politics at all and “dislikes and distrusts adulthood”; she is blond, in her forties, has prominent front teeth and looks beautiful in her white tennis dress. They both seem to instantly know they will fall in love with each other. What they don’t seem to know, is that this love will destroy their lives.

When opening this book, leave aside all of your assumptions of what this story will be about. Embrace it without expectations. This is not a story where a boy who falls in love with a woman who could be his mother. Where she then teaches him the arts of love. Where he eventually grows up and looks back at the love affair with nostalgia. This is a book about the destructive power of relationships. Indeed, from the very first line, Barnes doesn’t hide that the characters of this book will be suffering because of love: “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.”

Perhaps you picked up this book because of its title: it’s short, it’s absolutistic – it indubitably means there’s only one story worth telling. This is a recurrent theme throughout the whole book: Susan’s story is the only story that will characterise Paul’s existence forever. “Everyone has their love story,” she explains to her young lover, “Everyone. It may have been a fiasco, it may have fizzled out, it may never even have got going, it may have been all in the mind, that doesn’t make it any less real. […] Sometimes, you see a couple […] and you can’t imagine them having anything in common, or why they’re still living together. But it’s not just habit or complacency or convention or anything like that. It’s because once, they had their love story. Everyone does.”

What is peculiar and fascinating about Barnes’ The Only Story, is the honesty of the narrator’s voice. Paul tells the story of his love for Susan exactly as he remembers it, because he thinks “there’s a different authenticity to memory, and not an inferior one. […] Memory prioritises whatever is most useful to keep the bearer of these memories going.” This way, Paul’s memory itself becomes one of the main characters – we follow the story not simply through him, but through his memory. And Paul is not afraid to admit that his memory can sometimes be faulty. He has no interest in focusing on details such as the food he ate, the clothes he wore, the name of the village he and Susan lived in, or the subject he studied at university. “I’m remembering the past,” he says, “not reconstructing it.”

At the same time, we witness some extraordinary moments of intimacy between Paul and Susan, which are described with precise and vivid details. For example, when the two move together to a small flat in London, which Susan has managed to buy, Paul’s account of their nights together is sweet, funny and exquisitely real: “The notion of lovers falling blissfully asleep in one another’s arms resolved itself into the actuality of one lover falling asleep on top of the other and the latter, after a certain amount of cramp and interrupted circulation, gently shifting out […] I also discovered that it wasn’t only men who snored.” Julian Barnes is, indeed, the master of delicate descriptions.

Unfortunately, this idyllic life that Susan has always dreamt – this life that Paul has chosen to be his forever when he’s only nineteen – will not last long, and Paul will have to choose if he’d rather love the more and suffer the more, or love the less and suffer the less.

This heart-breaking, tender novel reminds us that we all have one story worth telling, and that is the only one that matters.

About the reviewer

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Anna Maria Colivicchi was born and raised in Rome. After a BA in Italian Literature, she is now pursuing a Master’s in Writing at the University of Warwick. In her writing, she seeks the extraordinary in the ordinary, focusing on the details of everyday life.

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