The Only Story
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|1 February 2018|
The short (273 pp.) novel is the life story of Paul Roberts, who we first meet as a 19-year-old Sussex University undergraduate returning to his parents' house in the leafy southern suburbs of London (Sutton, in Surrey, is suggested as a model.) The time is the early sixties, and there are a few references to current events. Paul joins the tennis club, which is the one of the few opportunities such places offer for socialising. In a random-draw mixed doubles, he is thrown together with Susan MacLeod, a 48-year-old married woman with two daughters older than Paul. Improbably, Paul and Susan become lovers and she eventually leaves her family to set up house with Paul in South London. Having nothing to do but a little housekeeping, Susan soon descends into alcoholism and dementia. Paul departs and embarks on foreign travels, picking up jobs and women at random.
Paul is a quintessentially alienated character. With no interest in either politics or religion, and no particular ambition, he takes life as it comes. As he narrates his life in this book, he freely admits that memory is unreliable and he may not be telling us the truth.
- Paul Roberts, the protagonist
- Susan Macleod, the older woman
- Gordon MacLeod, Susan's husband who she nicknames "Elephant pants"
- Martha and Clara MacLeod, Susan's daughters. Paul refers to them, respectively, as "Miss G." (Miss Grumpy) and "Miss N.S." (Miss Not So Grumpy)
- Joan, Susan's former tennis partner, a forlorn and cynical character whose ambition in life has been reduced to finding the cheapest bottle of gin within driving distance
- Eric, Paul's best friend from university
- Anna, a later girlfriend
Paul agonises about the nature of love, even going so far as to keep a notebook of sayings on the subject. He concludes that pain is an inevitable concomitant of love, and wonders if he'd have been happier if he'd loved less, and presumably therefore brought less pain on himself and Susan.
The book has no conventional chapters but is split into three parts, simply labelled "One, Two, Three". Part One is the boy-meets-woman narrative, told in the first person. Part Two, told in a mixture of first and second person, is the decline of the love affair, and Part Three is the rest of Paul's life told mostly in a mix of second and third person. In the last few pages, as Paul says his final goodbye to Susan, now sedated in a loony bin, he reverts to the first person.
- Preston, Alex, "The Only Story review – Julian Barnes goes back to Metroland", The Guardian, Feb 4, 2018.