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Love, Etc Paperback – 6 Aug 2009
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Oliver, Stuart and Gillian have been friends and lovers. It's ten years since they last met, and a lot has changed. For a start, Oliver has married Gillian, and Stuart, his erstwhile best friend, hates him for it. Not just because Stuart was once married to Gillian but because he still loves her. His last memory of Gillian was of seeing her, covered in blood, after a vicious row with Oliver, and he has never relinquished his vow to rescue her. Under the guise of repairing old friendships--"all blood under the bridge"--mild-mannered Stuart insinuates himself into their life, offering advice, support, even giving Oliver a job. As Oliver is manoeuvred into a crippling depression, Stuart unveils his deadly masterplan.
In Love, etc., the sequel to Talking It Over, Barnes adopts the same technique he used previously, allowing his characters to speak their innermost thoughts and secrets directly to the reader. The result is a bewitchingly intimate excursion into a taut triangle of betrayal and jealousy. With painstaking detail, he creates a vibrant portrait of modern love--as funny as it is cruel, as absurd as it is deep. Few contemporary writers can portray Middle England, with all its temptations, so darkly.-- Matthew Baylis --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"The triangle of deeply believable characters and the story of betrayal and revenge are so engrossing that you almost fail to notice the usual Barnesian fusillade of wit and brilliance" (Sunday Times)
"The real wonder of this book is its apparent simplicity, its apparent slowness, the exactness and delicacy of its observations, the absolute firness of the form for the story. Of its kind - and I still don't dare to say what that kind might be - it's perfect" (Daily Telegraph)
"This wonderfully entertaining novel... A work as skilled and satisfying as this can be nothing other than affirming: Barnes' delicate balance between laughter and despair lifts his entertainment into art" (The Times)
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In Talking it Over, I found the pretentious pontificating of Oliver tolerable and sometimes entertaining. In Love etc I found it tedious. As a quick example, this is the pompous way that Oliver says something which, translated into normal English would be "Is he rich? While having a drink with him I didn't ask about his life in America."
"Is he replete with the long green? While quaffing and quenching with him I did not out of sheer tact enquire too subcutaneously about his sojourn in the land of the free."
The book is cleverly written and at times insightful but much of the time it comprises armchair psychology with a veneer of wit disguising an absence of wisdom underneath. To help you decide if you will like it, here are a few examples of the style:
"Being in love makes you liable to fall in love. Isn't that a terrible paradox? Isn't that a terrible truth?"
"It is not so much that I do not want, as that I do not want to want. I do not desire to desire. And I will say this. I am perhaps now as happy as in the yaers when I did desire. I am less occupied, less preoccupied but no less happy, or no less unhappy. Is this perhaps my punishment from those Gods who no longer exist? To realise that all the heart trouble - is that the word? - which I endured, all that searching and all that pain, all that expectation, all those actions, were not after all, as I thought, relevant to happiness."
"There are many theories as to what it is that men marry - their sexual destiny, their mother, their doppelganger, their wife's money, but how about the notion that what they truly seek is their conscience. God knows most men aren't able to locate it in the traditional seat, somewhere close to the heart and the spleen, so why not acquire it as an accessory, like a tinted sun-roof or metal-spoked steering wheel? Or might it alternatively be that this is not what men truly seek but what marriage of necessity turns women into."
Here is one I like but it isn't original. It is a quote from Alexandre Dumas.
"The chains of marriage are so heavy that sometimes it needs three people to carry them."
Stuart, stodgy and predictable, was briefly married to Gillian before dashing Oliver stole her away. Ten years have passed, Stuart has remarried, divorced, become financially successful in the U.S., and returned to England. Oliver and Gillian are still married, the parents of two daughters. As their lives once again intertwine, many of the old tensions revive, along with some new tensions, the result of the characters' changes in ten years.
Barnes's characters are vivid, and their speeches to the audience are both dramatic and real. One can easily see how the various characters would interpret events differently, and that aspect of the book is fun to read. There are numerous disadvantages to Barnes's approach, however. The characters are independent of the reader, isolated not only from the reader but from each other, and they feel like actors on a stage who have not invited anyone in to share their lives. The reader's role becomes that of an observer or a judge, deciding not only what happened but what will happen in the future. Readers looking for an unusual narrative will find this book fascinating and carefully constructed, though perhaps a bit slow. Mary Whipple
Given the high standards of the best of Barnes's fiction his readership have certain expectations that if not met lead to great disappointment. Julian Barnes' previous novel, England, England was one such disappointment. A heavy handed satire, toying with notions of nationality and nationhood, it somehow found its way onto the Booker Prize shortlist (perhaps saying more about the paucity of modern British fiction and the quality of the judging panel than the quality of the novel). It is disappointing to note that the novel under review, Love etc, is not a return to form.
Love etc is a belated sequel to Talking it over (1991), and was the name of a French film adapted from Talking it over in 1997. Talking it over itself seemed to stem from the half chapter in a History of the World in 10 1/2 chapters - an essay on the meaning of love. Taliking it over had three principal characters, Stuart - the quiet boring one; Oliver - the flamboyant pretentious one; and Gillian - the sensible one. The three characters were caught in a love triangle. The plot seemed to echo that enjoyed so often by new wave French cinema. The novelty of Barnes approach was that each character took it in turns to address the reader. The novel was an exercise in perspective and unreliable narration (some years after Martin Amis's similar Success).
Love etc. adopts the same approach. There are the three central characters picking up where Talking it Over left of. They are ten years older, little wiser. Stuart is still relatively boring, has somehow managed to make a lot of money in the US, has remarried and separated, and keeps something nasty in his wallet; Oliver is a waster, still pretentious, still in love with Gillian; and Gillian is still relatively sensible. There is a greater role in this novel for Gillian's mother, whose gnostic words of wisdom litter the novel like Confuscian thought. The characters also still directly address the reader.
There are advantages in this approach. When done well the character's approach to the reader is not mediated through an ominscient authorial voice. When done well, the reader is shown how the same event can be viewed in many different ways by different observers. However, where the stylistic device gave Talking it over its novelty, grates here. We've seen it done before and the process feels like an exercise in ventriloquism. The characters all seem like different facets of one character, rther than distinct personae. The characters are too alike, their individuality based on stylistic quirks (Oliver uses big words; Stuart is banal), rather than any particular revelations of character.
Barnes gives the novel a "shock" ending which while handled sensitively seemed like an attempt to give the novel an issue to deal with rather than a necessary action of the characters.
This novel is disappointing, and this review has picked out what for this reviewer were weaknesses. Saying that, what is disappointing for Barnes is still a level above most contemporary English literary fiction.
The novel is very readable. It has a wry wit; and raises interesting observations and questions on the nature of love. However, I think, ultimately, that the novel fails.
This novel can be read without having read Talking it over, but the characters have more depth if Love etc is read after Talking it over.
If you want to try a Barnes novel I suggest Flaubert's Parrot or Staring at the sun. If you enjoy Love etc, try Alain de Botton's Essays in Love, or - in a very different style - Ivan Klima's Love and Garbage.
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