A little girl lies in bed listening for the sound of her mother’s lover leaving the house. “I waited to hear the front door shut. You can always hear it because it needs an extra pull.” Fiction is full of vigils like this one (only think of Proust); but Julian Barnes’s door makes the least noise and yet the most definitive closing sound of any fictional door I can think of. He is a writer who goes for perfection and mostly gets it.
Love, Etc. comes across as an alarmingly perfect novel—penetrating, subtle, almost puritanical in its economy. The format is that of a talking book, in that all the characters—three major and four or five minor ones—take turns talking directly to the reader. The voices are so distinctive and so in character that the speaker’s name at the start of each confidential bulletin seems almost superfluous. Barnes’s verbal mimicry is inventive, accomplished, revelatory, and also fun. He’s an acrobat with words, a performance artist.
His new novel is the sequel to Talking It Over, which was published in 1991. In that novel, Gillian, a picture restorer, marries a shy, boring, decent, kind-hearted, ultra-conventional man who works in a bank: a disappointment to his parents, he says, and to himself too. Being chosen by Gillian makes him feel better about himself too. His name is Stuart and his conversation consists of hesitant little clumps of clichés. Gillian leaves him, quite soon, for his best friend (and best man at the wedding), who is called Oliver. Oliver’s first name is Nigel, but he has dropped it because Nigel sounds insurmountably middle-middle-class. Oliver thinks of himself as a free spirit above convention. He is a writer who doesn’t write much. He scrounges instead—and talks: cleverly, wittily, learnedly, easily dropping into French, Italian, and even Latin, pseudo-Shakespearean, pseudo- biblical, schoolboy slang, gangster-speak; quoting, punning, cynical, facetious, show-off, unstoppable, unbearable. He is meant to be over the top, and in the earlier novel, Barnes’s presentation of his over-the-topness is itself over the top; not so much in the sequel.
If Love, Etc. seems almost flawless, the obvious flaw in Talking It Over was that Gillian, a very attractive, sought-after woman in her early thirties, should ever have thought of marrying either Stuart or Oliver, especially since she’s cool as cool can be. Her signature tune is the expression “getting on with things”; she uses it all the time in both novels, and it defines her behavior. Oliver talks and talks and never gets on with anything. His marriage to Gillian is presumably meant—at least on her side—to rest on the attraction of opposites. But Oliver’s over-the-topness is so irritating—even to read about—that it is impossible to sympathize with him any more than with chilly Gillian. As for Stuart, in the first novel he is, mutatis mutandis (as Oliver might say), the equivalent of Pierre at the start of War and Peace, i.e., not the lover the reader wants to back. Perhaps it’s naive to want a novel to make one take sides (as long as one can change sides); but if there’s no side to take, then it’s easier to put the book down and stop reading. Still Love, Etc. is not a novel one wants to put down. It’s not that the story is so gripping: it’s the skill and the wit that Barnes brings to it.
The first novel ends in the French village where Oliver and Gillian go to live with their baby daughter. Stuart keeps sending Gillian anonymous flowers; he also stalks her, and installs himself in a hotel opposite their house to keep an eye on her. From his window he witnesses a marital fight in the street; Oliver hits Gillian and draws blood. Early on in the second novel Gillian informs the reader that she knew Stuart was watching them; she thought their behavior would scare Stuart off. In the first novel, however, she only hints at her stratagem in a manner so cryptic that the reader needs to be a cryptographer to unravel what she is up to, which suggests that Barnes may have had a sequel in mind when he wrote the earlier novel. In any case, Gillian’s revelation in the new novel comes as a shock, and is surely meant to.
Love, Etc. begins more than six years after the end of Talking It Over. Gillian’s plan has worked. Stuart has given up, taken off for the States, made good in the wholesale organic food business, and married an American; but he has kept Gillian’s photo in his wallet. The marriage ended in an amicable divorce, and he has now returned to England to set up a successful chain of organic food shops called the Green Grocer. The punning name indicates that he has come into the slick world at last. Barnes is brilliant at nailing trendy customs and expressions. Eighty years from now, maybe, his wicked accuracy in this department will enchant readers with its quaintness as much as Jeeves, etc., enchant present-day Wodehouse fans.
Stuart has made it. He has acquired expensive clothes, a glitzy car, and a decent amount of self-confidence. Meanwhile Oliver and Gillian have also returned to England. They now have two little girls and no money except Gillian’s income from restoring pictures. They live in a grotty part of London with bad schools. Oliver has turned into a disgruntled house husband. Stuart lends them money, pays the bill when they all go to a restaurant, and persuades them to move into the house he once shared with Gillian and still owns. It’s in a better neighborhood and the children will have better schools to go to. (Living near good schools has become an obsession with the English middle class, especially as more and more of them disapprove of boarding schools and leave those to rich foreigners.) The little girls love Stuart. Sophie, the elder, fantasizes that he is her real father (he’s not).
There’s a little subplot: Oliver and Gillian try to find a woman for Stuart, and introduce him to Gillian’s young assistant. They go to bed once or twice, but the girl isn’t really interested, and Stuart is still obsessed with Gillian. He spends a lot of time with the family: he loads the dishwasher, “realigning the plates that were already in the machine, which he always does,” as Gillian observes; sometimes he cooks dinner; he even puts up bookshelves. Oliver has stopped wanting sex. More and more depressed, he sees a psychiatrist, and goes into even deeper depression. Meanwhile Stuart seduces Gillian, who reports:
We’d never done it like that before, two hot kids in a kitchen, half-dressed, whispering, urgent.
“I’ve always loved you,” he said. He looked up into my eyes and I felt him come.
Before he left, he set off the dishwasher.
And made Gillian pregnant.
Oliver doesn’t know that, but turns his face to the wall just the same, literally and metaphorically. “What are our lives but doomed attempts to revive a cliché?” It must be one of the most pessimistic maxims ever coined (there’s a lot of maxim-coining in the novel); and it’s all the sadder because, as Stuart says earlier and with acute perception, “Oliver…knows what the cliché is and does the opposite.” All the characters, even the child Sophie, have a touch of the philosophe. They reflect, mainly about love and friendship, and are not afraid to generalize and pronounce. After all, they are mostly speaking not to one another, but to themselves—or else to the reader, which is the same thing. At one point, one can almost see the three principals lined up to face an audience as they chant antiphonally:
Stuart: First love is the only love.
Oliver: As much love as possible is the only love.
Gillian: True love is the only love.
The whole novel is a disquisition on these attitudes.
Like a car at a traffic light, it suddenly brakes just at the point where one might expect Gillian and Stuart to feel free to resume their first marriage. But neither can make up their mind, and the indecision comes as a shock. The final pronouncement is made by Gillian’s clever French mother, Madame Wyatt, who functions as an aphoristic Gallic oracle in both novels (and invokes Chamfort and La Fontaine while browsing among the shelves in Waitrose supermarket). Barnes has always seemed enchanted by French wisdom, but this time he lets it fail. “I will wait. For something to happen,” says Madame Wyatt at the end of the last chapter. “Or for nothing to happen.” Perhaps what will happen is another novel about the trio. The only trouble with this one is that it’s cold. Some people say that perfectionists always have a cold streak. Another pronouncement.