‘The Only Story’ by Julian Barnes – Paul is 19 and Susan is 49


‘The Only Story’ by Julian Barnes (2018) – 253 pages

”The Only Story’ is about a May-December romance, a quite unusual May-December romance. Here nineteen year-old Paul falls in love with forty-nine year-old Susan after they meet at a local tennis club and play tennis as a mixed doubles team. I have never encountered or heard about any romantic relationships where the woman is that much older than the man. This takes place in an upper class English neighborhood. Susan is married to nightmare husband Gordon. For Paul it is first love, and he falls hard. At nineteen, he is proud that his romance flies in the face of social respectability.

It was a matter of some pride to me that I seemed to have landed on exactly the relationship of which my parents would most disapprove.”

Later both Paul and Susan are kicked out of the tennis club.

The story is told from the point of view of Paul when he is many years older and is looking back on his younger days.

Part I is devoted to the early stages of the romance when Susan is still living with her husband. Paul spends most of his time at Susan’s house and inescapably meets her abusive violent husband Gordon. Gordon is the villain of this story. At the end of Part I Gordon slams a door into Susan’s face, breaking six of her teeth and cracking her jaw.

In Part II, after two years Paul and Susan move in together. It is only then that Paul discovers that Susan has an alcohol problem. There is no foreshadowing of this alcohol problem at all. Instead Susan is presented at the beginning of the novel as this wonderful person but about half way through she suddenly turns into an awful drunk whom Paul must take care of and protect her from herself. This does not seem fair to Susan, and I believe it is a mistake on Barnes’ part in not making her descent into alcoholism somewhat more gradual and more from her own point of view.

As usual with Julian Barnes, he waxes philosophical every few sentences in ‘The Only Story’. However since the plot and characters in ‘The Only Story’ are so lame, all this philosophizing seems unearned. After a while all this blathering on about Love and Life grew tiresome.

Part III is valedictory. In this part Barnes gives up on any pretense of plot or characters and thus is wide open for even more heavy-duty philosophizing. After ten years, Paul realizes he is wasting his life keeping track of the hopelessly drunk Susan and makes arrangements with her daughter to take over care of Susan.

‘The Only Story’ has a sad elegiac tone with many generalities about Love, made even sadder by such philosophical insights as the following:

That’s not a very kind thing to say.”

I don’t do kind, Paul, Truth isn’t very kind. You’ll find that out soon enough as life kicks in.”

I just might cry.



Grade: C+


7 responses to this post.

  1. Thanks for the review. I may skip this one.

    Liked by 1 person


  2. Mmm. Sounds disappointing. Seems like the alcoholism becomes a mere plot device.

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Cathy,
      It seemed like Barnes was more interested in philosophical insight than in plot or character. In other of his work the plot and characters are better presented.



  3. O no! Say it isn’t so!
    I love JB and *pout* have bought this one in anticipation of another great read!

    Liked by 1 person


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