The Only Story

Distilled to its purest form, The Only Story is a historical account of two unlikely English lovers but, since it's written by Julian Barnes, it's far more complicated and multilayered than that. Unconventional Susan is an unhappily married, middle-aged woman with grown children, while Paul, a university student from a conservative background, is, at 19, around the same age as Susan's children. They meet at the local village tennis club and engage in an affair that shatters his parents' bourgeois equilibrium and puts the final nail in the coffin of her disastrous marriage.

Barnes layers Paul and Susan's story in three parts, with distorted angles like the tiers of a dysfunctional wedding cake. The bloom of first love forms the delicious, celebratory base. Despite their age difference, Paul considers Susan similar to him and discovers in her a kindred spirit. She laughs at life and at the same things that he laughs at, she is hilariously sarcastic and stands out from the one-dimensional adults in his life. The reality of life with Susan once they elope and Paul's disillusioned musings on their relationship when he is near the end of his life span the second and third parts, tasting bitter yet addictive, tormenting the reader.

There is good reason that the New York Times Book Review once referred to Barnes (The Sense of an Ending) as "a much-decorated veteran of English literature's emotional battlefields." The Only Story expertly navigates the havoc wreaked by Paul and Susan's doomed union. --Shahina Piyarali, writer and reviewer

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