Whenever you take a fiction workshop you are guaranteed that…
First, I will admit that I’m virtually the only person on the entire planet who did not adore Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. If it Christa hadn’t loved the crap out of this and begged someone to read it, I’d probably have skipped the whole thing. But her review intrigued me, and I dove in without reservation.
Oof. This is just not my kind of book. Some people really dig the thinky books, books where the main character rattles around pondering great questions. I am not those people. I like books where something happens, something besides the main character puttering about reminiscing and wondering about his life’s choices.
This one opens with a quartet of precocious British boarding school teens who spend their time talking about philosophy and history and adopting “intellectual” affectations. At one point during the school year, a classmate commits suicide. It’s rumored the boy offed himself because he got a girl pregnant and that was an unbearable no-no in the 50s.
Then we fast forward to the sixties where the boys have scattered to the collegial winds and follow one, Tony, through his bumpy twentysomething relationship with the enigmatic Veronica. While dating the duo visit Veronica’s family and spend an awkward weekend with her parents and older brother. Shortly after their relationship disintegrates and Veronica takes up with Adrian, the genius of that boarding school quartet.
Tony’s not happy about this coupling, tells the duo to fuck off, and after graduating spends some time bumming around the US. Upon returning he learns about the devastating events that transpired in his absence.
Then we fast-forward to present day Tony. A hapless sixtysomething dude who has an adult daughter and an amicable relationship with his ex-wife. One day he receives a strane bequeathment from Veronica’s mother a letter, a small amount of money, and an old diary which is in the possession of is former lover Veronica. Tony sets off to recover what he believes is rightfully his from the unwilling Veronica.
While this little plot synopsis sounds like it has potential, for me it did not. A lot of the book is Tony waffling about his house thinking about how what he thought he remembered and what seemed to have actually happened aren’t the same thing. Like I get that. It’s intriguing and kind of startling to realize you were so wrong. But still. . . old dude checks email constantly and has the occasional passive-agressive and coy meeting with old girlfriend is not the stuff of exciting reading for this reader. With each turn of the page I kept begging for something to happen. Nothing ever did.
And the ending? I get that the ending was supposed to ambiguous a well, “sense of an ending” but it feels coy and as a reader it made me feel dumb. Throughout the book Veronica consistently tells Tony “you never got it and you never will.” And in the end he doesn’t get it and neither does the reader. It feels a little like “ha ha ur so dum” which kind of sucks. Sure the reader can speculate on what the heck actually happened long those forty years ago, but it’s unsatisfying and frustrating. And, it feels like a ripoff. If I have to sit through all those pages and pages of Tony pondering and thinking and reminiscing, the least the author could do was give me a sort of revelatory payoff.