Reading The Only Story reminded me of a meeting of my writing group when I was living in Istanbul. I was working on my novel Life Discarded at the time. When the novel starts off, Morgan is a bad girl – an extremely bad girl. Naturally, that started a discussion about writing a novel with characters readers hated. One of the ‘rules’ of writing – supposedly – is to keep characters relatable and likable. So, how do you write a story in which the characters are not likeable, but which readers want to read anyway? Julian Barnes has managed to pull off just that hat trick.
~ Blurb ~
~ My Review ~
Based upon the blurb, The Only Story is not a novel I would have chosen to read. But when a book is written by an award-winning author and a book club pick, you go along with the flow. The prose in this novel makes it clear why Barnes is an award winner. Although the story didn’t captivate me, his words did. I found myself re-reading passages again and again. I was actually disappointed I bought a signed first edition as I wanted to mark up the book for future reference.
I can honestly say I didn’t like Paul to the point I’d probably deck him if I saw him in person. Nonetheless, I found him one of the most honest characters I’ve ever read. He didn’t hold any punches! He was emotionally stunted, immature, and a bit of a brat. Without his brutal honesty, I would have found it hard to continue reading. I didn’t care much for Susan either. She didn’t seem to have much of a personality. As this was Paul’s story, I don’t feel we ever got to meet the ‘real’ Susan. The secondary characters are mostly unlikeable as well but extremely entertaining (e.g. Susan’s husband and his elephant pants).
The novel is split into three parts with the first part in first person, the second in second person and the third in third person. This highlights the increasing distance Paul feels to his love story. I must say I didn’t feel the intense passion in the beginning. Paul admits his memories are unreliable. Perhaps the memory of passion has faded as well? As second person is somewhere between the deeply personal first person and the impersonal third person, the second part of the novel implies Paul is in an intermediary state where his love transitions from intense to suffering to detached.
I found the subtle social commentary throughout the novel interesting. Paul’s deep dislike of his parents’ way of life echoes the feelings of the youth of the 60s. Susan’s referral to her alcoholism as a moral disease is reminiscent of how society thought of alcoholism at the time. And then there’s the spousal abuse about which no one talks. Although Barnes does not tell us what to think of these societal values, he does bring them to the forefront and gently prods us to contemplate them.
Whether you enjoy the novel or not, the story undeniably thought-provoking story.
~ About the Author ~
Up next for the book club is The Mars Room from Rachel Kushner. Stay tuned …