In the middle of Love, Etc., the new novel by the English writer Julian Barnes, a stern old Frenchwoman who declares herself captive to exclusively “soft feelings” addresses her own question, “What do I desire?” She craves few material things, she explains, mentioning only “a well-cut suit and a sole off the bone.” Courtesy, friendship, a safer world for her daughter and granddaughters, she continues. And “I want a book,” she insists, “written with a good style that does not have an unhappy ending.”
Love, Etc. is a stern story about soft feelings, written in a good style indeed. A sequel to Barnes’s 1991 Talking It Over, it further chronicles the domestic comings and goings of Stuart, Oliver, and Gillian, all of whom are now in their early forties. As in the earlier novel, characters alternate speaking directly to the reader, without benefit of authorial comment or interference. One hears from Oliver, a jobless literary swell who contemplates writing screenplays, and his wife Gillian, a fine, although moderately compensated, art restorer. And one hears from Stuart, a sensible accountant who is Oliver’s longtime friend and Gillian’s former husband. Rounding out this trio is Mme Wyatt, Gillian’s French mother (she of the well-cut suits and well-written books); Terri, Stuart’s American ex-wife, an emotionally shell-shocked woman obsessed by a friend’s theory that “all men are genetically related to stone crabs”; and Ellie, Gillian’s 23-year-old assistant and Stuart’s reluctant girlfriend, who initially felt that “middle-aged divorcees weren’t exactly [her] scene.”
Whereas Talking It Over slowly charted Gillian leaving Stuart, the embodiment of low-key practicality, for Oliver and his sexy flamboyance, Stuart’s return to London from America jumpstarts the faster-beating heart of Love, Etc. The contrasts among the three principals—between what Oliver himself once refers to as his own Oliverness and Stuart’s relentless Stuartness, with Gillian the serene calm in the middle of the storm—is sharper than ever in Barnes’s unfailingly crafty design. Here is Oliver-speak, the talk of a man observed by others at different times to “flap,” to “rattle,” to live “on his nerves,” in the view of Mme Wyatt, because he “is not happy in his skin”:
The flat looked as if the lares et penates had done some heavy partying, and my artistic yen to reduce chaos to order being what it is, I’d stacked a few things in the sink, and was just trying to decide whether to give the Unpublished Shorter Fiction of Saltykov-Shchedrin another go or have a three-hour wank (don’t be envious, only teasing), when the shrill borborygmus of the telephone alerted me to what philosophers preposterously maintain is the outside world.
Stuart is altogether different, especially now that he has followed up on his profitable American residency and returned to London as a trendy vendor of organic foods. Motivated always by his continuing love for Gillian, Stuart remains deceptively factual and presentational. Ellie, for him, remains “one of those million girls in black who seem to have sprung up in England while I was away,” whereas the mere sight of Gillian’s shoes (“They were scarlet, old-fashioned, with a thin strap and buckle . . . rather sweet”) drives him wild, and he can go on about her like Ovid in a new turtleneck: “[Some people] love once and, whatever happens, it doesn’t go away. Some people can only do it once. I’ve come to realize that I’m one of these.”
Barnes writes with the litheness of a chansonnier and with the high-handedness of an Oxford don. Although he can perform straightforward narrative absorbingly, as in 1992’s political thriller The Porcupine, he prefers to see fiction as a place to screw around elegantly with telling a story. This has been true since 1985’s great Flaubert’s Parrot, and in Love, Etc. Barnes is in spectacular form with his novel’s shifting monologues, shaming most dramatic writing, of which it is inevitably reminiscent. His great theme, as always, is that life is messy and fiction is orderly, and in Love, Etc. he keeps going back and forth between those two positions. Or, as Barnes has Oliver put it, “Life, after all, does indeed consist of walking bollock-naked along Oxford Street with a pineapple on your head and then being obliged to marry a member of the Royal Family.” The less bizarre world of Barnes’s highly calibrated book, on the other hand, is full of carrot juice mornings and free-range chicken evenings, of a bobo England overrun with self-satisfied luxuries that never quite ease those old ongoingly ancient conundrums—and even tragedies—of the heart. It is funny, it is sweet, it is a valentine, it is savage. It does not have an unhappy ending.