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The Only Story

A Novel
Written by: Julian Barnes
Narrated by: Guy Mott
Length: 7 hrs and 21 mins
4 out of 5 stars (13 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

From the Man Booker Prize-winning author of The Sense of An Ending, a novel about a young man on the cusp of adulthood and a woman who has long been there, a love story shot through with sheer beauty, profound sadness, and deep truth.

Most of us have only one story to tell. I don't mean that only one thing happens to us in our lives: there are countless events, which we turn into countless stories. But there's only one that matters, only one finally worth telling. This is mine.

One summer in the 60s, in a staid suburb south of London, Paul comes home from university, aged 19, and is urged by his mother to join the tennis club. In the mixed-doubles tournament he's partnered with Susan Macleod, a fine player who's 48, confident, ironic, and married, with two nearly adult daughters. She is also a warm companion, their bond immediate. And they soon, inevitably, are lovers. Clinging to each other as though their lives depend on it, they then set up house in London to escape his parents and the abusive Mr. Mcleod.

Decades later, with Susan now dead, Paul looks back at how they fell in love, how he freed her from a sterile marriage, and how - gradually, relentlessly - everything fell apart, as she succumbed to depression and worse while he struggled to understand the intricacy and depth of the human heart. It's a piercing account of helpless devotion, and of how memory can confound us and fail us and surprise us (sometimes all at once), of how, as Paul puts it, "first love fixes a life forever."

©2018 Julian Barnes (P)2018 W. F. Howes

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Bad Choice !

I did not get beyond Chapter 2! A disappointing
choice. Wish I'd read reviews on line first!

2 people found this helpful

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SW

The first half of the book was too long....in that the repetition of ' but I was only 19' dragged. I would have finished there but I was reading for book club. Glad I continued, the portrayal of Susan's alcoholism was perfect. Although sad this character flaw made the book.

1 person found this helpful

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  • KP
  • 2018-09-21

The Only Story

I really loved Julian Barnes’ previous book, The Sense of an Ending. This book, The Only Story, seems a lot sadder and more depressing, which is saying a lot since The Sense of an Ending wasn’t the happiest book around, anyway! This one also has to do with a love affair between a younger man and a much older woman, but it is more simply a look back by the younger man, who is now 50+, in order to examine what went wrong with the affair and to try to make sense of his life.

I enjoyed that the couple met on the tennis courts playing doubles, since that’s my game. Some tennis symbolism in the book is interesting, too. While they are playing tennis, Susan who is then 45 warns Casey Paul, all of 19 years old, to watch out for the middle of the court where players can most easily win a point by dividing their opponents with a good shot down the middle. It’s a common strategy in doubles tennis. THEN when Susan and Casey go to bed together soon after, Susan whispers, “Never forget, the most vulnerable spot is down the middle.” This rings true at the start of their relationship and proves to be a potent symbol of a weakness in it later on: the space between them, the differences between them. And I laughed when, on their very first sexual encounter, as they look down at the bed in front of them, Susan says, “ Which side do you prefer? Forehand or backhand?” I’ll remember that one ☺

I do think Barnes is a good writer! One technique in this book that I loved is how he starts out the book from the first person perspective of the young man, Casey Paul. Barnes writes, “And first love always happens in the overwhelming first person. How can it not? Also, in the overwhelming present tense. It takes us time to realize that there are other persons, and other tenses.” In the second section, Barnes writes in the second person. It’s almost like the story is becoming so tragic and complicated that the writer is retreating to the second person as a way to show distance that is developing between the two lovers. And then by the third section, there is a further retreat to the third person. The author writes, “But nowadays, the raucousness of the first person within him was stilled. It was as if he viewed, and lived, his life in the third person. Which allowed him to assess it more accurately, he believed." I appreciate how the writer’s voice echoes the deterioration of the relationship. Interesting.

The relationship between Susan and Casey should have been a fling. The fact that they kept it going on and on seems to have ruined both of them! That is the tragedy. In the beginning, Casey likes the idea of the relationship because it was so against what his parents and society would condone. He condemns people like his parents as “furrow dwellers” living out a boring existence for decades from which there is “no escape, no turning back.” By continuing his relationship with Susan for decades, he ironically succumbs to the same fate in a sense, although his fate is really more tragic in its outcome. Still Casey says about himself and Susan toward the end, “… still they hadn’t been defeated by practicality.” Hmm. Better to be practical than to end up with the fate of those two, in my opinion.

6 people found this helpful

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  • Joe Kraus
  • 2020-01-15

One of the best, at this best

I’m tempted to quip that this one is The Graduate meets Weekend in Vegas. And, at a basic plot level, it is something like that. Nineteen-year-old Paul falls in love with 42-year-old Susan, and they embark on a multi-year affair. Then, sometime later, Susan becomes an alcoholic, and Paul works in vain to “save” her from herself.

Barnes is a powerful writer, and describing the book as those stories well told does begin to do it justice. As this goes on, though, it becomes all that and something more.

Above all, this is a novel exploring the way the world looks to someone who has lived it. The frame narrative here comes from Paul, looking back on his own long life, and recalling what he has experienced. Early in their affair, Susan explains to him that everyone has a love story. It may be a failed one, it may even be one that never happened outside private imagination, but everyone has one such story. And it is, for everyone, “the only story,” the private and powerful experience of reaching out to someone else in a love he or she can’t then understand.

So, while the original love story comes with real grace and detail – their “court”-ship takes place over tennis and her husband is a three-dimensional boor – and her descent into alcoholism works as a powerfully sad story, what elevates this to the status of top-tier world literature is Barnes’s capacity for reflecting on the nature of story as self-definition.

It’s striking that this begins and ends in the first-person yet, for a stretch toward the end, it lapses into third-person. That feels like breaking the rules, but it works. And it works because Barnes insistently pushes us to consider the experience of how we narrate our lives to ourselves.

There are parts here that might be condescending in the hands of a lesser writer. Paul reflects on how, as an older man, he understands things he could never have understood in his youth. That could so easily be banal, but here it’s subtle and earned. As an older man, Paul is unfulfilled and idiosyncratic. He could not be the man he is without having experienced Susan. Susan is largely gone for him, though, and he can understand the relative disappointments of his later life only through story – as the titular only story.

It’s hard to say much more than that Barnes is justifiably one of the great writers working in our time. I understand him as one of those Booker-prize regulars, someone the British recognize as the best they have. I have admired a number of his earlier novels, and now I realize I have a real pleasure in front of me as I catch up on some of the others.

2 people found this helpful

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  • jamie kohl
  • 2018-08-12

ADeepDive

The narrator set a tone that was intoxicating. It felt almost like someone whispering their deepest secrets. The story navigating a life examined explored multiple important themes, including infidelity, love, abuse, alcoholism. Moving, thoughtful and engaging.

1 person found this helpful

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  • chad404
  • 2018-05-03

by far the most unremarkable book I ever heard

Narration is fine so no fault there. As the first 15 minutes unfolded I thought/hoped this book might read like the diary of an old man that you find tucked under some books at a garage sale, you know a real treasure. You give it the benefit of the doubt for the first 30 minutes because you respect your elders and you think/hope they can share something wise with you. However, after you have totally zoned out for 7 hours as this book literally has gone nowhere and at the speed of water freezing into lava (makes no sense just like the book) you sadly realize that it is fact not a sage old man's diary but actually the uncompleted coloring book of 3 year old that had only 2 crayons (both made of slightly different shades of grey).

3 people found this helpful

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  • Maria Herrera
  • 2019-01-27

Not just a love story

I would find myself putting the book down and thinking is this a book about a love affair or is it a book about the many things of love? He strips some of the platitudes our culture decorates love with and poignantly admits its difficulties and the unsung heroism of allowing love. The moral portrait of the times is also treated fairly.

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  • Elizabeth
  • 2018-07-20

Sorry, Julian. Not this time.

Pretty bad all round. I love British fiction of all periods, and have been reading Julian Barnes since the days of Flaubert's Parrot. This was just plain dull and repetitive, lacking dramatic tension or any kind of depth of character. I couldn't finish it, and the annoyingly maudlin voice the narrator gave to the female characters was off-putting. I kept wondering whether it would be better to read this than to listen to it, but the story itself didn't have enough to recommend it. I see what Barnes was trying to do, but he didn't do it. The novel was neither a meditation on love nor was it an exploration of the uses and failures of memory; the framework of the book allowed for either of these possibilities, but it didn't come to fruition. I kept wondering what a writer like Ian McEwan could have made of this very basic and shopworn plot.

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  • the baz
  • 2018-05-08

Disappointing

Very maudlin and not much to captivate the reader. I was expecting more from this accomplished author.

1 person found this helpful

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  • Tami
  • 2018-05-03

An ok book

While I enjoyed this book, it was a bit long in parts. However, worth reading.

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  • Linda Bigelow McCue
  • 2018-04-30

worst book ever. painful to listen to til the end.

one of the most boring books ever with a non ending and chapters that seemed to drag on

1 person found this helpful