The Only Story – Book review by Asha Seth

Author: Julian Barnes | Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Romance | Pages: 272

The Blurb:

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.

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The Review:

First love has lifelong consequences -that sums the book pretty damn well. The Only Story is a coming-of-age novel. It is almost Bukowski’s Ham on Rye with Hanks’ eccentricities. Paul is very much like the protagonist from Buk’s popular novels, save Hanks’ sexual extravaganzas.

At the age of nineteen, Paul’s life halts at Susan’s doorstep, the 48 year-old married neighbor Susan, and even after 40 years, it hasn’t taken off. During this period, Paul undergoes overwhelming emotional and psychological transformations, with regards to love, life, relationships, marriage, career, etc.

Paul is a outcast in his social circles; he weaves his world around Susan. Moving away from the conservative society, he believes to have a fresh start with Susan. But things soon start to fall apart as Susan, incapable to deal with a life away from her husband (who is abusive) and her home has an erratic change of behavior, causing both their lives to be left lurching in a rather unpleasant tumult.

What follows is what we have read or seen in movies several times, high-on-love adults seeking recluse from the world and when their own little world later consumes them whole, leading to a rather blithe less-than-average romance story.

For most bit, The Only Story feels like a monologue, asserting and reasserting Paul’s beliefs, more or less influenced from his experiences as he goes on with his unusual life. There are 3 parts to the story, and although it doesn’t get tiring in the beginning, after 180 pages, it starts to feel draggy, and in some places a dull reiteration of thoughts and observations from the earlier 2 parts follows.

This is one passage that I feel obliged to share, which sums up the story, beautifully.

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 been all in the mind, that doesn’t make it any less real. Sometimes, it makes it more real. Sometimes, you see a couple, and they seem bored witless with one another, and you can’t imagine them having anything in common, or why they’re still living together. But it’s not just habit or complacency or convention or anything like that. It’s because once, they had their love story. Everyone does. It’s the only story.


Barnes’ writing is introspectively meditative but not totally fresh and it, fails to gain a piece of the reader’s mind. While you feel for Paul, you understand and agree with his plights and pleasures, you can’t seem to fall in love with him or Susan. The poetic prose and shouting his mind out in astounding precision, does stand deserving of applause. So much said, had the book been made rid of the repetitive stuff, it would run a mile ahead beating most modern contemporary works, in terms of writing style and the content, at least.

If you happen to read ‘The Only Story’ or have already read it, do share your thoughts below.