If there’s a bookstore in the afterlife, Geoffrey Chaucer would probably pick up a copy of Julian Barnes’s new novel, The Only Story. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, especially the famous “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” and “The Merchant’s Tale,” offer variations on the basic premise of Barnes’s book—the rise and fall of a romantic relationship between a man and woman of very different ages. But while Chaucer played out this May-December premise for laughs and wisdom, Barnes has an exclusively serious purpose, as we learn from the very start: “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.”
Readers of Barnes’s work won’t be surprised by this beginning to his latest novel. Its best-known predecessor, The Sense of an Ending—which won the Man Booker Prize in 2011 and was made into a well-received movie last year—was also concerned with big questions, in that case regarding loyalty, betrayal, and the continuities of feeling and responsibility that can extend across a lifetime. These very same matters are at play in The Only Story, only with a more immediately and explicitly scandalous point of origin. Paul is a nineteen-year-old Englishman on summer vacation from university, living a life “all slow-paced, and lonely” outside the capital city at “a time when you could drive up to London and park almost anywhere,” as he tells us in recounting events some fifty years later. Bored and desperate to get away from his parents, who seem to him the blandest and most banal human beings imaginable, he begins playing tennis at the village club. His parents hope he’ll meet a nice girl. Instead, he meets a middle-aged woman. For a mixed doubles match, Paul casually partners with Susan, a married woman in her late forties known slightly to his parents. This leads to very subtle flirting in between sets and then to less subtle flirting on successive drives home before becoming a full-on affair that changes his life and hers forever.