Julian Barnes’ new novel, The Only Story, posits that while many things happen to a person in their lifetime, at the end of the day there is only one story that matters. In the case of our narrator, Paul, his one story is about his first love, and he seeks to share that story with the reader.
I fell into a nice rhythm in the first fifty pages, falling under the spell of Julian Barnes’ writing and drifting merrily along. But two days later I realized I hadn’t thought about the book since I put it down and had to remind myself to get going again. This became something of a pattern–once I picked it up, I was charmed enough by Barnes’ writing to continue, but the story meant so little to me that I forgot it completely as soon as I put it down.
A big part of the problem is that there’s a definite disconnect in the material here. Barnes sets out to tell the story of Paul’s first love–perhaps his greatest love, even if only because it was the first, but there doesn’t appear to be anything special about this relationship. He and the married, older woman he begins an affair with have zero passion, little chemistry, and while some of the curious obsessions Barnes has his narrator focus on (circling her wrists with his fingers, playing with her outer ear and studying it intimately) are portrayed with artistic devotion, they come across as… odd. They certainly don’t lend the sense of urgency this book is sorely lacking.
Instead, everything feels curiously undefined. That may be part of the point–Barnes is also playing with the idea of memory and narrative by having Paul tell this story many years after it happened–but it still doesn’t feel like anything is clicking. Instead of moving forward in an interesting way, the narrative stagnates. I confess that after I made it halfway through, I forgot to pick the book back up for over a week. This is the book form of George Michael’s girlfriend on Arrested Development–the one no one could remember exists. So I gave up and turned to someone else’s story instead.
PS I received an advanced copy of this book from Penguin Random House’s First to Read program in exchange for a review.