With its generational clash of cultures, the 1960s have always been fertile ground for fiction. Like The Graduate, The Only Story by British novelist and Man Booker Prize winner Julian Barnes concerns a young man’s affair with an older woman who is suffocating in a loveless, sexless marriage.
Nineteen-year-old Paul, on a summer break from university, is encouraged to join the club by his mother, who is hopeful he’ll make social connections. Susan Macleod is married with two daughters at university, and is keeping up appearances by playing at the stuffy local tennis club. She encourages a reckless affair that consumes and taints much of Paul’s life. As an older man reflecting on it, Paul says it left him “walking wounded.”
It’s Susan, not Paul, who dominates the page. At first it seems absurd that her pent-up civil servant husband, Gordon, can tolerate her relationship with a teenager, referring to him as “your fancy boy.” Gordon even allows Paul to eat dinner with them. Gordon typifies that era’s English middle class and its inability to express emotion. Instead, an inner rage seethes inside him. We gather the extent of this when Paul meets Susan outside a London doctor’s office and discovers she’s nursing a broken jaw.
Susan’s mental and physical decline and its effect on Paul—who is almost Samaritan-like in his inability to leave—are torturous. Susan’s quiet, suburban devastation turns into a full-blown catastrophe as Paul takes on the role of caretaker, being mistaken at one point as his former lover’s grandson.
The skill in Barnes’ writing is a complete lack of sentimentality, his unflinching depiction the equivalent of slowing down to observe a car crash. You can’t help but stare.