“Everyone has their love story. Everyone. It may have been a fiasco, it may have fizzled out, it may never even have got going, it may have all been in the mind, that doesn’t make it any less real.” “The Only Story” is Paul’s love story. Only it is really much more than that. It is a story of youth from the perspective of the aged. It is a story of mistakes made and the lifelong impacts of those mistakes. It is the story of relationships made and squandered. It is not a happy story.
19 year old Paul is home for the summer, living with his parents in a perpetual state of boredom and teenage superiority. Paul’s mother convinces him to join a tennis club, hoping he might meet an appropriate type of girl, one he derisively refers to as a Caroline (the counterpart of whom he refers to as a Hugo). He is haphazardly matched with Mrs. MacLeod as his mixed doubles partner. Mrs. MacLeod is 48 years old, an excellent tennis player, mother of two and unhappily married to Gordon, whom she, in rather juvenile fashion, refers to as EP–Elephant Pants. Apparently he is a tad overweight.
Paul and Susan MacLeod develop a close friendship which inevitably becomes a romance. It turns out that Susan has not slept with her husband for 20 years and he is physically and mentally abusive. Paul is hopelessly in love. In a telling conversation early in their relationship, Susan says to Paul: “…at some point everyone wants to run away from their life. It’s about the only thing human beings have in common.” Two years later, Paul and Susan run away together and make a home in London. Paul goes on to law school.
Although they stay together for about 10 years, things begin to fall apart early on. Susan becomes an alcoholic and chemically dependent and deteriorates into someone Paul no longer knows. Ultimately, he “gives her back” to one of her daughters.
Throughout the book Susan’s friend Joan plays a significant role. Joan is the sister of Susan’s first love, who died young from cancer. Joan has her own tragic past and failed loves and is living alone with her dogs and her gin. She is rough around the edges but Paul goes to her when he is seeking reassurance.
The story is being told by Paul 50 years later. He muses about his differing perspectives now compared to his perspectives at 19 and what has become of his life . “He knew that no one can truly hold their life in balance, not even when in calm contemplation of it. He knew there was always a pull, sometimes amounting to an oscillation, between complacency on one side and regret on the other.”
The book is beautifully written, as you would expect from Julian Barnes, but it is also depressing and leaves the reader with an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. It is, however, blessedly short. If you want to read it, you can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.