It’s hard to imagine a more perfect marriage of form and content than Love, etc., in which Julian Barnes continues the story of characters that came to life in Talking It Over. If, however, this marriage is fine, then equally the marriage of Gillian and Oliver is not. And neither, for that matter, was the previous one that temporarily joined Gillian and Stuart.
Julian Barnes tells the story of this love triangle entirely in the first person. Gillian, Oliver, and Stuart appear like talking heads on a screen to relate their own side of things. Since we left them at the end of Talking It Over, Stuart has moved to the States, where he has become a successful businessman and has found a new partner. Oliver, meanwhile, having won the hand of fair Gillian, has started his family but has fallen on hard times, an experience he seems to regard merely as a passing phase, except that it’s clearly not a phase and neither does it pass. Re-enter Stuart, and thus the situation progresses.
Occasionally, especially when the principal actors mention them, minor characters appear to have their often substantial say. There is an ex, a new girlfriend, an occasional mother. Also, the children have their say, their naiveté as confused as it is innocent, their vagueness inherited, perhaps, from their personal environment.
And so a story unfolds. Oliver is as full of theatre and bravura as he was throughout Talking It Over, but now it rings more of a bluff, a screen erected for self-protection rather than an extrovert’s sheen. Unemployment and illness seem to have exhausted him. Stuart, having made his fortune, is on an up and begins to reassert his desire to occupy the position he has always coveted, the space by Gillian’s side.
There are surprises in store, surprises for the characters and for the reader. But what Julian Barnes communicates with such subtlety, skill, and ease are the inconsistencies of human character, the incongruities of events, the contradictions and deceptions of behaviour, and the illusions these confusions create. These people all act primarily out of self-interest. But then who doesn’t? That’s the point. And thus the process takes all of us to places we have all been, but have often failed to notice or acknowledge, even if we have admitted and recognised our motives, which most of us have not. Love, etc. is a brilliant book, brilliantly conceived and brilliantly executed with a lightness of touch that leaves us wholly surprised when we encounter a fundamentally serious point. The plot? Who cares?