(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Love, etc., Julian Barnes’s ninth novel, is a sequel to Talking It Over, published in 1991. The first novel explored the variations and transformations of a triangular relationship involving three bright professionals in their early thirties. Stuart Hughes was a solid, well-meaning but reticent and stodgy banker who married Gillian, a reserved, sensible restorer of paintings. His best friend was Oliver Russell, a public school English teacher fired for having forced himself on one or more of his female students.

Soon after Stuart and Gillian’s marriage, the emotionally needy Oliver decided to seduce Gillian. He rented a room across the street from the Hughes home and phoned her his declarations of love. Although the marriage was less than a year old, Gillian found herself sexually aroused by Oliver, who was agile and witty with words, yet unable to look after himself properly. She allowed Oliver into her studio, where he aroused her sexually by combing her hair while she was working. They informed Stuart that they were in love; Gillian obtained a divorce, and married Oliver. After the remarriage, the shattered Stuart, unable to let go, followed Oliver and Gillian to a French village where they were vacationing. They knew he was spying on them through the curtains of his hotel window, so Gillian decided to liberate Stuart from his obsession with her by staging a public quarrel with Oliver in the village square with Stuart watching. The quarrel climaxed with Gillian deliberately goading Oliver into striking her hard in the face, drawing blood. The idea was to make Stuart believe that Gillian was worse off without him, while he was better off without her. Did the tactic work? Yes and no. The reader is informed, early in the pages of Love, etc., that Stuart moved to the United States for most of a decade, yet he never stopped loving Gillian and kept in touch with her mother.

Barnes’s narrative strategy in both novels is to have his characters directly address the reader as “you,” confiding in this anonymous interlocutor as they seek to justify themselves, or accuse themselves and others, or dispute each others’ versions of events. The readers are invited to draw their own conclusions from evidence that ranges from sketchy to overwhelming, from farcical to suspect to pathetic. However, if readers are psychologically astute, they will seek far deeper explorations of the main characters’ motives than Barnes has chosen to give them.

Here, for example, is Gillian’s attempt, early in Love, etc., to explain her past conduct: she tells the reader that she genuinely loved Stuart, and that everything was working well in their marriage, including sexual harmony. Yet, soon after their marriage, she fell in love with Oliver “against my instincts and my reason.” Even though Oliver intensely excited her sexually, she refused to have an affair with him before her remarriage. Then, when Oliver and she finally did have sex, she found him “much more insecure” in that terrain than Stuart.

The point is, you can love two people, one after the other, one interrupting the other, like I did. You can love them in different ways. And it doesn’t mean one love is true and the other is false. That’s what I wish I could have convinced Stuart. I loved each of them truly. You don’t believe me? Well, it doesn’t matter, I no longer argue the case. I just say: It didn’t happen to you, did it? It happened to me.

In the United States, Stuart worked for a bank for two years, then successfully switched to restaurant ownership and thereafter to wholesale organic food distribution. When he noticed no such enterprise in England, he decided to set one up in London, six years after having left the city. He formed a successful chain of organic food shops called the Green Grocer. When in the United States, he was married to Terri for five years, although the marriage unraveled when she realized he was still obsessing about Gillian and refusing to take her photos out of his wallet. The only joint therapy session they attended lasted eighteen minutes, ending when he walked out.

In the early pages of Love, etc., the reader finds out that Stuart is now wealthy, well-dressed, self-confident, and forty-two. Gillian and Oliver have two...

(The entire section is 1755 words.)