For this month's TOAST Book Club we review The Only Story by Julian Barnes.
Paul is clever, naïve and brimming with youthful obstinacy. Susan is quirky, unconventional, and fettered by circumstance. He is a 19 year-old student; she is unhappily married at 48. And one quiet summer, they fall ‘smack into love.’
In his latest novel, Julian Barnes echoes his protagonists, breaking taboos with this tale of love across the generations set in 1960’s Surrey. Ironically, it is Paul’s uber-conventional mother who unwittingly throws the couple together - seeing him fester over the summer after his first year at university, she casually suggests he join the village tennis club. A few weeks later, he and Susan are paired in a mixed doubles tournament. Over time, they become partners, both on and off the court.
At first they merely slide into friendship, though even in their earliest encounters there is a sense of ‘complicity’. They talk about everything, share a passion for music and art as well as tennis. Susan is full of whimsy, ‘laughs at life’ and flaunts the rules, keeping house with disorderly ‘insouciance’. Paul is ‘joyfully young…in brain, heart, cock, soul.’ Apart from her, he is distrustful of his elders, not yet sure that adulthood is ‘attainable’ or even ‘desirable.’
Gradually Susan reveals herself ‘in oblique observations’, describing her generation as ‘played out’, unfit for purpose after the war. As a young woman, she lost her fiance to leukemia and tumbled into marriage with the next man who came along: her bullying, obese husband EP (‘Mr. Elephant Pants’) who by day ‘hits a golf ball as if he hates it’ and by night surrounds himself with ‘flagons and gallons’ and drinks himself into oblivion. Though they have two grown daughters, the couple have not slept together in decades.
The story is narrated by Paul and, from the outset, he is at pains to point out that theirs is a relationship of equals. Both he and Susan are ‘quasi-virgins’ and she is neither Mrs. Robinson nor Oedipal mother-substitute. What transpires between them is the purest form of first love, a love that ‘cauterises’ the heart and ‘fixes a life forever.’
It is told from a distance, some fifty years later, but Barnes shifts between tenses to lend immediacy to Paul’s recollections. The narrator dances around this point, constantly ruminating on memory and authenticity. Does memory always serve our interests? And ‘which are truer, the happy memories, or the unhappy ones?’ As an old man looking on at young lovers, Paul feels not envy but ‘protectiveness’, as if he wants to shield them from what lies ahead.
Because of course this story ends badly. Susan, it transpires, has hidden vulnerabilities. On the tennis court, she is ‘calm, well-ordered and reliable’ and Paul is ‘stupidly erratic’. But off the court she is looking for a place of safety. ‘Beneath her laughing irreverence, there lies panic and pandemonium.’
Over the course of decades Paul comes to understand that Susan is a ‘damaged’ spirit whose life has been irreparably fractured by their love, leaving her ship-wrecked inside it. Throughout their time together, Susan plaintively asks, ‘Please don’t give up on me just yet.’ As if she knows that one day he will.
Barnes’ great achievement is to make this story feel profound, palpable and credible. Although he places it in the distant past, the novel feels decidedly relevant; sex and love between the old and young remain as much a taboo today as they were fifty years ago. And while it is Paul who ultimately forsakes Susan, it is she who teaches him that everyone has one love that defines them, and that ‘it’s the only story’ worth telling.
The TOAST Book Club is published on the last Friday of every month. The reviews are written by Betsy Tobin. Betsy is the author of five novels and joint founder of [email protected], an independent bookshop just up the road from our head office, situated in leafy Highbury. The book club exists in a purely digital space and we hope that you will add your own opinions and thoughts below.