I took a far longer time thinking what to write about this book than actually reading it. And I think it’s because I disliked the book so much; the ending left me confused, disappointed, and dejected. Heck, I should have seen it coming, the title itself bears such an ominous ring to it.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely not because of the bad writing, because Julian Barnes is such a gifted writer, and the story was beautifully crafted. Before I start, I’d like to qualify that I’m an unworthy novice to pen a review for this book, and this review in no way determines the merit of this book; it is just my reflection of the storyline. So, having read the book, I just wanted to pen down some thoughts that at least serves as a reflection that I have gone through it.
The problem with this book is not about the style, but the storyline. I really disliked the story, and how disappointingly it ended. Basically, the story is about a man reminiscing his teenage days. What I can’t understand is, he is now in the mid 70s (maybe?) with a capable daughter who has grown up and is happily married with a child, an ex-wife he’s still on good terms with, and yet he still has such problems resolving some very minor issues he faced in his teenage years – a casual/serious girlfriend (well, he called it his first serious relationship, but really, the entire courtship process didn’t sound very serious to me). Well, the story is this: after he broke up with his girlfriend, she started going out with his best friend, and this best friend one day committed suicide under mysterious circumstances. So the whole book was basically about him trying to uncover why this brilliant friend of his committed suicide.
I was kind of confused when I reached the ending, and promptly went online to search for reviews of the book that could perhaps deliver me from my ignorance. To my relief, I wasn’t alone – and I think quite a few other readers were equally stumped when they finished the story. You may read this brilliant interpretation of the ending if you don’t mind spoilers / aren’t intending to read the book.
I disliked the story not because it wasn’t well written, but because this protagonist’s life could almost be a projection of how my life could possibly turn out. Shy, unconfident teenager, got attached in college, broke up, girlfriend started going out with best friend, best friend died mysteriously, teenager grew up to be an ordinary man with an ordinary job, fell in love a second time, got married, had a kid, got divorced, kid grew up, man grew old, and starts reminiscing his younger days, wondering about how his best friend died. Delves into the mystery, and finds out how he’s connected to his friend’s death, feels remorse. So there.
You see, his life could very well be how my own will unfold in the next twenty years. But I don’t want this kind of life, I want something more, something happier, something more accomplished – I want to grow old, feel accomplished, happy, know that I’ve made a difference to this world, to some people in this world, I want to have created a happy family, who in turn have been given wings to achieve their dream. I want leave something that’s of value to the world when I leave – I want to have left a legacy here.
And I think this was one of the passages in the story that I disliked the most:
“In my terms, I settled for the realities of life, and submitted to its necessities: if this, then that, and so the years passed… I gave up on life, gave up on examining it, took it as it came. And so, for the first time, I began to feel a more general remorse – a feeling somewhere between self-pity and self-hatred – about my whole life. All of it. I had lost the friends of my youth. I had lost the love of my wife. I had abandoned the ambitions I had entertained. I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded – and how pitiful that was.“Average, that’s what I’d been, ever since I left school. Average at university and work; average in friendship, loyalty, love; average, no doubt, at sex. There was a survey if British motorists a few years ago which showed that ninety-five percent of those polled thought they were ‘better than average’ drivers. But by the law of averages, we’re most of us bound to be average.”
A note to myself: I never, ever, want to be like this, ever.