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'Love, Etc.' by Julian Barnes

Season's readings: ‘Love, Etc.’

Sunday, April 01, 2001

By Ellen S. Wilson

 
 

Love, Etc.

By Julian Barnes

Knopf
$23.00

   
 

There are tales in which the narrator grabs you by the arm, forcibly detains you, makes you listen to the story they have to tell. Think of Cole-ridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” possibly the best known among the classic examples.

Julian Barnes, in his new novel and its prequel, the 1991 “Talking it Over,” takes the device a bit further. There is no wedding guest here, as in the Coleridge poem, no surprise therapist at the end, taking notes. There is only you, forced to listen as Barnes’ protagonists tell their story and, to some extent, even take part.

Stuart, Gillian and Oliver make up a love triangle. In “Talking it Over,” Stuart, a solid, not terribly exciting young executive, marries Gillian, a down-to-earth (apparently) restorer of paintings.

Stuart’s best friend, Oliver, is initially puzzled because he has been the one women like, and yet somehow Stuart manages to win the attractive Gillian. For reasons we, and they, could all speculate about endlessly, Oliver falls in love with Gillian, and she resists only briefly before leaving her husband and marrying him.

The first novel ends as Gillian, guilty about her behavior, stages a scene in which she goads Oliver into hitting her. Stuart, known to Gillian but not to Oliver, watches the scene, and this knowledge of his friends’ bad marriage allows him to resume his life.

This novel picks up the story 10 years later, when Stuart returns to England after finding success in America. Gillian and Stuart, however, now live in relative poverty with their two daughters. Gillian supports the family, while Oliver has become increasingly moody and tiresome.

Stuart begins by greeting the reader, insisting, “I remember you,” whereas Oliver says, “I could tell you remembered me,” and Gillian says, “You may or may not remember me.”

Stuart not only has more money than his friends, but he is also more worldly than they are, and that changes the balance of power. He insinuates himself into their lives, moves them into a nice apartment and befriends their daughters.

We are not surprised to find him cooking dinner one night while Oliver, in the midst of a recurring nervous breakdown, takes to his bed. Stuart and Gillian “comfort” each other, as Stuart puts it at first. And then revises it: “No, the truth is, we were like a couple of kids.”

Gillian’s typically even-handed description includes the statement, “He kissed me first. But that’s not an excuse. A woman knows how not to be close enough if she doesn’t want to be kissed.” But then, oddly, Gillian revises her version. “The way I told it to you is the way I would have liked it to happen,” she says, and then claims Stuart raped her.

What and whom to believe?

This is the Gillian who staged the worst fight of her marriage. How much falsehood lies in these relationships and, by extension, in any relationship? The trio insists throughout that their tale is universal. The plot here is minimal. The story lies in watching how these people relate to the world and each other, deceive themselves, misjudge the situation.

This odd, one-way construct keeps the reader from talking back, although the degree of intimacy we feel we have reached makes that an obvious inclination. But then, the intimacy in this engaging, thought-provoking and oddly funny novel is an illusion as well.

Ellen S. Wilson is a Pittsburgh free-lance writer.

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