Barnes has written a tale in which the arc of memory is smooth and graceful. Paul Roberts is nineteen and on the verge of stepping out into the world. His paramour, 48-year-old Susan Macleod, clings to her beauty and vulnerability. Paul meets Susan at the local tennis club where, amongst "his tribe," he feels a natural competitiveness that is masked by his sudden attraction to this older married woman. Years later, Paul reflects that he and Susan did not possess the qualities of patience and honesty. Through Paul and Susan's struggles, Barnes reflects on the illusion that all lovers have about themselves: the need to be complicit and to escape both category and description.
Memory sorts and sifts according to our demands. It is a matter of pride to Paul that he has landed in exactly the sort of relationship of which his parents would most disapprove. Products of their time and age, they are initially appalled that their beloved son has gone to the tennis club and come back with Susan Macleod, a married woman with two daughters who are both older than Paul. There can only be embarrassment, humiliation and shame, along with prim looks from the neighbors and "sly allusions to cradle-snatching." His mother condemns her son, angry that he's "operating a bloody taxi service."
Paul's is a complicated story of love and sex and loyalty. Despite having two children and having been married for a quarter of a century, Susan is no more sexually experienced than Paul. In search of privacy, the couple escape to London for a few hours, away from the prying eyes of "The Village" and from Paul's parents and Susan's husband, Gordon, and the noise and crush from the tennis club. In the city, in the silence and the sudden floating of music, Paul seems trapped in his own private expectations. Susan is his first love, but the fallout will cauterize and scar his heart forever.
Whatever new desires she experiences, Susan tries to keep her life with Gordon separate, unable or unwilling to bear the discomfort of his daily abuses. Paul unexpectedly finds himself the handsome martyr, increasingly irritated by Susan's incessant refusal to leave her abuser. Visiting in the afternoon, just three and a half hours before Gordon returns, Paul thinks about how much he loves this woman who is neither cynical nor idealistic and takes each circumstance as it comes. He's not angry at Susan but at whatever it is that is starting to obliterate her. Susan assumes that Paul has the required minimal sexual experience, and he assumes that she is eager for a sex life, far from the sacrament of marriage.
Though Barnes' novel is beautifully written, I grew weary of Paul's efforts to save his drunken and damaged muse. Like an embattled romantic hero from the great literary tragedies, Paul seems to revel in the pain and sacrifice. Soon enough, Susan is spiraling downward. At first there are the "happy pills" as Paul tries to do the best he can, tackling the moment of crisis by taking Susan's wrists and talking to her about how they first met and how they fell in love. As their relationship begins to fray, Paul finally acknowledges that he's been hiding from his own version of panic and pandemonium.
Susan's best friend, Joan, is the most interesting character, with her gin and her cigarettes, dogs, crosswords and swearing. She tries to help, telling Paul about Susan's fractured past, her penchant for self-pity and the history of her marriage to Gordon. Throughout, Paul still deeply believes that love is the only thing that counts: "everyone had their love story, everyone. It may have been a fiasco, it may have fizzled out, it may never have got going."
Marshaling the heavy weight of passion, Barnes shifts from Paul's perspective in his present life to his past, allowing us a mirrored view of his hero's private, secret sorrows. Paul looks back on his life and recognizes that his love for Susan was, by its very nature, disruptive and cataclysmic. While the story's tone is empathetic and fearless, Barnes' tale mostly left me disconcerted. I never really warmed to his placid descriptions and the hectic metaphors centered on Paul's efforts to find a way to live and to see himself as he once was, far from Susan's tragic ghost.