It is so rare to read an immersive, full-bodied love story these days. A love story that is not dystopian, not re-imagined, not allegorical, not faux fairytale, not satirical, not set in wartime, not between androids. The Only Story is a love story on lines of, well, ...Love Story, or maybe even Devdas from the point of view of Chandramukhi, where disease or drink is the villain that comes in the way of lovers. Julian Barnes says it straight, as ramrod as the blurb on the book’s backflap: ‘It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’. (Like the cheesy ‘Love means never having to say sorry’ in the other book, which Paul refers to here, and remarks, 'on the contrary, it frequently means doing just precisely that'). The lines may be casual, even trite, but their telling is finely distilled and quietly sophisticated.
The only story is this. He is Paul, she is Susan. He is 19, she is 48. She is married with daughters about his age. But no, it is not a searing tale of a younger man and older woman fighting against all odds for their love in the face of societal disapproval while leading conformist, neatly laid suburban lives. The age gap between them is just something that happens to be there, a presence barely touched upon. As the protagonist Paul points out, “Or you might think: French novels, older woman teaching ‘the art of love’ to younger man, ooh, la, la. But there was nothing French about our relationship, or about us. We were English and so had only those morally laden English words to deal with: words like scarlet woman, and adulteress”.
In the dark, brooding second part, narrated by an accusatory ‘you’, Barnes is in top form. Susan gets sucked into alcoholism, grows distant from Paul. Yet neither of them can stop it.
Paul, narrating his story now, is old and lonely, of an age when life consists of observations and memories, ruminating about love and its many ways. He is trying to find an answer to this question which keeps coming back in the three stages of the book: “Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more, or love the less, and suffer the less?” The first part, told in first person by the wide-eyed teenaged Paul, who is still quite bewildered to have acquired a Mrs Robinson, is breezy and effervescent. Paul is perpetually startled by Susan’s take on things. (They meet on a tennis court as doubles partners. Her husband Gordon Macleod is into golf. Susan’s take on golf: “It’s plain unsporting to hit a stationary ball, don’t you think?”). Soon, Paul is a permanent presence at the Macleods. But Gordon is more like a stern parent rather than a cuckolded husband. He is always slumped on the living room sofa, gulping whiskey and chomping on spring onions, teaching Paul, who is sitting on the armrest, the nuances of cryptic crossword. (Six blank spaces followed by an ‘N’, the clue is ‘Continue mocking Somerset town’. The answer: Taunton. Taunt on.).
So, Paul and Susan carry on like this, going to the movies, him driving her around, playing tennis. All fun and games, and a lot of sex, till they decide to move together to London. The second part of the book is dark and brooding, told in the second person, in the accusatory ‘you’. This part is about Susan getting sucked into the dark hell of alcoholism. Barnes is in top form here, as every day, every minute Paul and Susan grow distant, neither able to understand why or how to stop it. Susan is written with an ethereal aura about her, a gossamer-like presence who is both there and not there, she loves Paul intensely one moment and doesn’t care the next. Paul is guilt-ridden about her condition, his helplessness to save her from drinking, blames himself for getting her in this state.
Barnes doesn’t clearly say why the love between them disappears or the reason for Susan’s taking to the bottle. The last part of the book, told in the detached third person, hurtles towards the heartbreaking climax with unbearable urgency. Paul has deposited Susan back to Macleod household. The younger daughter Martha is taking care of Susan, who is now a serious clinical case, consigned to an institution. Paul’s last visit to her forms the core of this section, but in typical Barnesian style, it is shorn of any over-sentimentality or melodrama.
The Only Story is almost an accompanying book to Barnes’s Booker Prize-winning Sense of an Ending seven years ago. It is, again, a minute study of the themes touched upon there—of ageing, of mortality, of morals, of middle-class lives, and of course of loveship. He is ageing with a complex bouquet, minimalist as well as layered in the same breath.