The Only Story

Julian Barnes

The Only Story
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The Only Story

Julian Barnes

Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think, finally, the only real question.

First love has lifelong consequences, but Paul doesn’t know anything about that at nineteen. At nineteen, he’s proud of the fact his relationship flies in the face of social convention.

As he grows older, the demands placed on Paul by love become far greater than he could possibly have foreseen.

Tender and profound, The Only Story is an achingly beautiful novel by one of fiction’s greatest mappers of the human heart.


Julian Barnes’ writing has always dealt with the complicated notions of history and truth. We saw this clearly in his Man Booker Prize-winning title, The Sense of an Ending, which prompts the reader to ask whether truth is fundamentally elusive. In his latest beautifully succinct novel, The Only Story, Barnes raises a comparable question: is there only one love story in us all? The novel commences with protagonist Paul stating: ‘Most of us have only one story to tell. 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. This is mine.’

The novel is divided into three acts: the beguiling beginning, the middle, and the pitiful end. In each section, with the power of hindsight, Paul reflects on each inevitable crossroad he encounters. Set in London in the early 1960s, it begins with Paul as a university student, falling hopelessly and wholly in love with Mrs. Susan Macleod, a woman more than twice his age, a married mother of two nearly grown-up daughters. Paul and Susan enter an irregular relationship that lasts years.

This is not an easy story, and it reminded me, not in style, but certainly in context of Erich Segal’s 1970 Love Story. It is the pathos of young love occupied with endless possibilities but ending with an inevitable conclusion. Told with particular heartbreak, The Only Story allows us to consider exuberance and its partner in crime, grief. In this work, Barnes forces us to reflect on the very essence of what makes a love story. Of course, he raises more questions than he answers but, surely, this is his gift to us. The Only Story will lead you to ruminate, pleasurably. Truly.

Chris Gordon is the events manager for Readings.

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