Fans will not be surprised...to find that The Only Story—being a British teenage romance—is a perfectly accomplished book, with no missteps, inconsistencies, or obvious shortcomings. But is it any more than that? Is Barnes...just playing it safe? In terms of topic, perhaps. But not in the way that topic is handled, not in the least. The Only Story stakes bold claims and provokes surprising questions that demonstrate Barnes is anything but resting on his laurels ... Paul’s love story may not be all that interesting, but Barnes’s analysis of it certainly is. As in his other works, the author applies a scalpel to human consciousness to expose his protagonist’s intentions, beliefs, and neuroses with astute observation ... Each part of The Only Story possesses its unique voice and memorable descriptions. Taken as a whole, the novel provides a kind of phenomenology of love as it unfolds in human consciousness in its different stages: development, dissolution, and remembrance ... At times, accomplished novelists take on fairly banal plots just so they can show what they can do with them ... This is one of those plots, and—through his precise attention to the marvels of love and his perfect stylistic accompaniments to each state—Barnes has once again shown himself capable of transforming the mundane and ephemeral into the lyrical and lasting.
Flaubert stated that he wanted to write the moral history of his generation, to excavate passions that he declared were, despite the romantic pretenses of French society, 'inactive.' Barnes has set out to do much the same. The Only Story is just as pessimistic, with about the same satirical temperature and measuring the same ironic distance from what at first seems to be a love story that might generate some erotic heat. But In the Mood for Love this is not ... Barnes has a skillful command of tone and its moral implications, when he chooses to exert it ... Paul insists, 'first love fixes a life forever.' Barnes is aware of this, but to relate in some way the dark sides of the cultural revolution of the ’60s and that of his coming-of-age story he would have had to let his characters emerge a little more from Paul’s perspective and the look-at-me-in-the-dock exegesis of his poor treatment of a woman he never really understands. Here and there, all the same, Barnes’s rapier wit flashes and glitters. At one point in his decline, Paul gets 'punitively drunk to the point of sudden rationality.' What a delicious phrase that is, and how much more Paul might have delivered on it.
'Sex is the area where moral decisions, moral questions, most clearly express themselves; it’s only in sexual relationships that you come up against immediate questions of right and wrong.' So Barnes said in an interview some thirty years ago ... The Only Story suggests something more complicated. Decisions, choices, questions, consequences: Paul’s affair with Susan will let him in for all of them, and yet right and wrong seem curiously irrelevant here. Things happen, and you live with them, or try to, until you can’t ... Much of the pleasure in The Only Story comes from the wit and verbal precision that Barnes allows his narrator ... First to second to third [person narration]—Barnes’s switch from voice to voice is at once understated and dazzling. Which perhaps sums him up, the dazzle lying not in the shimmer of individual sentences so much as in the curves and vaults of his structural decisions. Those decisions embody the psychic consequences of this love affair in a far more vivid way than do any details of its plot, and they do something else as well. They speak to his characteristic formal daring. Barnes takes chances, and his books don’t always work; this one does.
It feels heretical to confess, but for all Barnes’s writerly skill, I couldn’t help feeling like the aliens who appear in Stardust Memories and tell Woody Allen, 'We like your movies, particularly the early, funny ones.' Where’s the biting wit of England, England or the knowing irony of Love, Etc.? By contrast, The Only Story is so full of grieving sighs that it practically hyperventilates. While the early parts of the novel contain striking vignettes about Paul’s naivete—his passion, his earnestness—the plot’s forward motion soon stalls in ruminations on the nature of love, the loss of innocence and the unreliability of memory. There’s a staleness to these themes that’s only partially camouflaged by Barnes’s elegant style, the way an expensive cologne might distract us, for a time, from the mustiness of a well-appointed sitting room. Indeed, despite its brevity, there’s something claustrophobic about The Only Story ... 'Perhaps love could never be captured in a definition,' Paul thinks. 'It could only ever be captured in a story.' Perhaps, but not in this one.
The Only Story, a gentle, bleak, and brilliant novel, the kind of book Philip Larkin might have written had he continued as a novelist, is in some respects a return to origins ... 'Most of us have only one story to tell,' says Paul late in the novel, '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.' Sometimes it feels like Barnes himself might have been telling only one story through all his writing. And this is to the good, for his themes are the big, unfashionable, universals — ageing, memory, above all love — and they have remained constant.
In a year that hasn't exactly been full of joyful tidings, Julian Barnes' latest novel struck me as one of the saddest books I've read in some time. Beautifully done, but heartrending ... The Only Story is about looking back on a life and trying to make sense of what happened. It's a heavier, less suspenseful read [than The Sense of an Ending], with a focus on love rather than death. It's also a far more interior and tormented tale ... The Only Story is about losing control, but also, losing the ability to lose control.
Julian Barnes’s latest novel is for the person who likes to listen to sad songs after a breakup. The Only Story hurts while it comforts ... Barnes’s writing is exceptional. The Only Story has many sentences worth underlining. The author is skillful in presenting love clichés without eliciting the groans. Rather than a gimmick, switching between points of view serves the novel well, and fits snugly with the novel’s storytelling theme. Barnes’s protagonists earn our sympathy even if their act of adultery is not laudatory. They’re believable and if you begin to have doubts, Paul’s recurrent rationalizations keep you on his side ... to get to the truth of the narrator’s lament—to get to the truth of The Only Story—you need to ask what are all those sad love songs really about? Heartbreak.
...this is on the surface a short, spare, parable-like drama that presents the past as a kind of puzzle. But beneath the orderly veneer is an overwhelming feeling of despair over missed opportunities and the persistence of loss. Don’t be fooled by the neatness of the narrative: This isn’t a two-sided examination of the past so much as a melancholy lament for its paltriness. Early on, Susan tells Paul that a person’s great love affair is the single event that defines him—his 'only story.' The notion seems romantic at first, but Mr. Barnes has rigged things so that by the book’s close it’s merely depressing.
When asked what he thought of his son’s books, Kingsley Amis said: 'Martin needs to write more sentences like 'He put down his drink, got up and left the room.'' Amis père would approve of many of the sentences in Julian Barnes’s latest novel, The Only Story, which steps through familiar Barnesian territory, giving us the English suburbs, an aged protagonist looking back over an unfulfilled life, all told in deceptively affectless prose ... Here, viewed from what Barnes calls 'the other end of life', there’s only the dull, intransitive rage of a terminally disappointed man ... The narrative is full of little rebarbative asides aimed at the process of storytelling ... The ending is quietly breathtaking, evidence of the subterranean magic that’s wrought by those seemingly austere sentences.
The Only Story reads at first like other books in the Barnes canon, in the way it combines complicated relationships with a limpid, unfussy style, brilliant wit with sorrow, an obsession with love and its shelf life, and a commitment not only to great storytelling but also to exploring how stories are told ... the novel plunges into darker, sadder places than Barnes’ work often goes ... Perhaps recognizing this, Barnes shifts to the second-person point of view, and the reader is addressed, engaged, even made to feel complicit. This makes up for the occasional repetitiveness, and Susan’s collapse ultimately feels like a necessary part of the lesson Paul must learn: that more often than not love doesn’t last, and the most ardent believers can spend a lifetime trying to understand why.
The novel opens with a question, the 'only real question' of life: 'Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less?' Barnes assays the answer in the remainder of the novel, easily (and perhaps best) read in one sitting ... The conclusion to The Only Story is heartbreaking. It moves from 'absolutism' to 'absolution.' Barnes delivers a powerhouse finish, a discomforting sense of an ending to a no-fault affair.
No one is likely to accuse Julian Barnes of being traditional...But look more closely at his output, and you'll notice how often he uses clever variations on the traditional three-act structure...Now, in The Only Story he finds yet another way to subtly subvert the three-act structure ... one of the best works of his career.
Barnes subtly but powerfully signals how badly Paul wants to absolve himself — or at least sort out how complicit he is — by having him tell The Only Story in a variety of moods and tenses ... The Only Story is downcast too. But it evokes the rhetorical playfulness of his earlier work, constantly prodding the reader to consider how complicit or self-deluded its hero is ... It’s a cliché to say that love is inexplicable, but the strength of The Only Story is Barnes’ willingness to explore the nature of that inexplicability, how it makes for honeymoons and tragedies alike.
Our new hero, Paul, places himself nearer the truth-telling memoirist Barnes than his fictional predecessor, the fascinatingly unreliable Tony Webster in The Sense of an Ending. Paul begins, as if in essay form, with a wide, philosophical question: 'Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more, or love the less, and suffer the less?' He constantly keeps one eye on historical context, and is especially astute on architectural detail and the way money is spent; and he is always intent on making himself ordinary, a mere example of humanity. As such, he is anxiously alert not only to the problems of self-heroising, but its opposite: 'There is the danger of being retrospectively anti-heroic: making yourself out to have behaved worse than you actually did can be a form of self-praise' ... All this means that the exquisite moments—and there are many—in The Only Story come from its psychological acuity, especially about how we remember. In Paul’s narrative, experiences deconstruct themselves and personalities decay in a devastatingly convincing way ... It all seems terribly sad, and horribly true: a definitive account of how romantic love becomes trapped in its own frame and empties itself of colour and meaning.
As Paul and Susan plunge ever-deeper into love, Barnes beautifully demonstrates that their romantic fantasy—and, by extension, the novel as a genre focused solely on love—struggles to survive in the face of violence, financial practicalities, and alcoholism. With a narrator every bit as intriguing as Stevens in Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989), the novel slowly unfurls, and the reader drifts along on Barnes’ gorgeous, undulating prose. Focusing on love, memory, nostalgia, and how contemporary Britain came to be, Barnes’ latest will enrapture readers from beginning to end.
This is his [the protagonist Paul's] story of a life-changing, life-defining love affair, from innocence to experience, from youth to age, from infatuation to weariness ... Throughout the novel, he explores questions raised by his experience, questions of choice versus inevitability, responsibility versus blamelessness, predestination versus roads not taken. In telling his one story he looks back, still struggling with persistent dilemmas and conflicts ... Remember, as you read this small book, generally and specifically about love, remember that suffering is, after all, the Latin root for passion.
By turns sardonic and shattering, Barnes takes us from the flowering to the falling-off of an affair that, though it began as declaration uniqueness and quiet rebellion against the average, falls prey to the most commonplace of human follies and community standards against which it kicks ... And it is staggering — intelligent, inspiring, tender and, ultimately, quite devastating.
With its generational clash of cultures, the 1960s have always been fertile ground for fiction. Like The Graduate, The Only Story by British novelist and Man Booker Prize winner Julian Barnes concerns a young man’s affair with an older woman who is suffocating in a loveless, sexless marriage ... The skill in Barnes’ writing is a complete lack of sentimentality, his unflinching depiction the equivalent of slowing down to observe a car crash. You can’t help but stare.
Barnes’ characterizations of both Paul and Susan are detailed and robust, though given the narrative structure, Susan remains a bit of a cipher. What prompted her to drink? What kept her from pushing back against her husband? Most critically, what drew her to Paul? Paul, though, is mainly concerned with what made their romance distinct from the usual romantic clichés. In other words, he’s narcissistic, and his rhetoric, in first person or not, often takes on a needy, pleading tone ... But that’s by Barnes’ design, and it’s consistently clear that Paul was in love, just tragically ill-equipped to manage it. A somber but well-conceived character study suffused with themes of loss and self-delusion.