It’s the 1960s, 19-year-old university student Paul is home on summer holiday. Bored and fed up of by his parents’ suburban conventionality Paul reluctantly goes along when his mum suggests he joins the tennis club to meet a ‘Caroline’. Instead, he meets Susan Macleod, 48-year-old unhappily married mum of two. A beautiful and harrowing love story ensues, one that will dominate the rest of Paul’s life. Julian Barnes fans will want to read The Only Story, if I were new to Barnes, though, I’m not sure this is where I would start.
To begin with, the affair is kept secret. Paul becomes a ‘house friend’, hanging out at the Macleods, driving Susan (who complains of poor eyesight), even staying overnight ‘on the sofa’. Gordon Macleod, Susan’s violent, unappetising husband, soon realises what’s going on, but the shame of this affair is such that nothing is said. Instead he starts terrorising them both.
Paul and Susan decide to move to London, proving the strength of their love and ostracising their families in the process. Theirs is an all-consuming love.
So I decided to become a solicitor. I had no exaggerated ambitions for myself; my exaggerated ambitions were all for love.
But life as an eloped couple is not as uncomplicated as they had hoped for; Susan ‘baggage’ from the past weighs them down, Paul’s inexperience in life renders him unable to help, and a slow descent into the abyss starts.
The Only Story has much in common with my favourite Barnes book, The Sense of an Ending. The story is told by the protagonist, both as naïve 19 year-old and many years later, with the benefit of hindsight. An older, wiser and more disillusioned Paul (I can’t help but envisioning Barnes himself in a cosy armchair) reflecting on life and love. Many of the themes recur: coming-of-age, the reliability of memory, inexperience and maturity, and the intensity of first love.
The Only Story is a slower moving book than The Sense of an Ending. It’s a beautifully written, wise book with a clever shift in perspective but it lacks the element of surprise that made The Sense of an Ending so compelling.
A clue to this book is in the blurb, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous line ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.’ Paul most definitely chooses the former and the question is whether he feels it was worth it. I’ll leave that for you to decide.
The Only Story is published by Jonathan Cape, 212 pages.