The Only Story by Julian Barnes
My Rating: 3 of 5 Stars

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“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.”

This sentence, which introduced this most recent book of Julian Barnes to his potential readers, was pretty much my Achilles heel from Page 1. I don’t quite understand how you can adjust the levels of love, like making marks on a burette and letting the content drip as per your desire of colour and consistency of the final emotion. Quantifying love is beyond my comprehension.

And yet, there is a certain granular tenderness in this story of a young man and his (almost) thirty years senior lover that prevents this love story from turning into a chore.

Seen in the rearview mirror during his twilight years, Paul reminisces the first time his 19-years old self fell for the 48-years old married Susan at a Tennis Court when the two were brought, fortuitously, together to team up for a mixed doubles match, and that his feelings were near immediately reciprocated. Ignited by this act that was both adventurous and liberating, Paul and Susan built walls around them, barricading their respective families with a dangerous, and often confounding, indifference and pushing this affair out of their current state, both literally and geographically. But at their new abode, that stripped them off their familial clutches, love gets suddenly exposed to the calamities of habituation, expectations and aging. As a result, a whole new world sprouts between the two – one where they commenced playing from different sides.

Barnes’ signature prodding into the delicate gossamer of human dilemmas and questionable foibles is much in display here although the narrative veered to the unpleasant edge of excess a good many times. Of the three sections the novel is divided into, the first was a watertight bag that didn’t allow for any of my emotions to blossom. The characters appeared like a bunch left unanchored on a theatre stage, waiting for the director to give them a cue. But beyond those 80 odd pages, Barnes plays his magic trick and all of a sudden, the palette of love bursts open and renders an immersive experience. The turning points when love turns into duty, the duty into a burden, the burden into a gash and the gash into a permanent scar, are the crevices where Barnes resonated the most with me.

“Love was by its very nature disruptive, cataclysmic; and if it was not, then it was not love.”

There, he did speak my mind.

 

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