The Only Story, Julien Barnes

by Laura Mclellan

“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 that anything about that at nineteen. At nineteen, he’s proud of the fact that 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.


As with his previous novel, The Sense of an Ending, The Only Story is instilled with quiet poignancy. Dealing with themes of history and memory, it reads like Ian McEwan’s Atonement (my all-time favourite book, which is clearly quite a claim!)

Beginning in the Village, complete with disapproving curtain-twitchers, eccentric gin-sippers and post-war conservativism, the tone is quintessentially English. The characters however, far from caricatures, are complex and relatable… the whole novel is reminiscent of the melancholic poetry of Haruki Murakami.

Love here is anything but a fairy tale… in place of a Prince Charming, the narrator, Paul, remembers his awkward 19-year-old self, spirited yet naive. The Princess is in fact a married mother of two girls, both of whom are older than Paul!

The ‘scandal’ is far from salacious though. In fact, the relationship is touching in its initial innocence, heart-breaking in its subsequent deterioration. The flaws and weaknesses of man, and woman, are portrayed with a sensitivity that reveals Barnes’ soft spot for mere mortals.

If you’re looking for a pulse-racing page turner, this is not the book for you. If you’re looking for a quiet moment of reflection, I can thoroughly recommend!

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