"Love, etc." by Julian Barnes

The eternal triangle returns in this story of a woman who has left her stolid, successful husband for a charming wastrel.

Published February 21, 2001 6:48PM (EST)

No one knows you better than a childhood friend, except, perhaps, a spouse, or maybe an ex-spouse. If you are really unlucky, like Stuart Hughes, the people who know you best will be your ex-spouse (Gillian) and your childhood friend (Oliver) who just happened to fall in love and run off together 10 years ago. Julian Barnes, who first wrote about this triangle in the 1991 novel "Talking It Over," is adept at reminding us that love, while noble in concept, is most often acted out in harrying, heckling, scolding, niggling, insulating, smothering, disappointing and, well, etc.

Stuart, the jilted husband, has just returned to England after a long sojourn in America, where he went to recover from the damage done to him by his closest friends. He has done well for himself as a greengrocer and his confidence shows. "My key words," he tells us, "are transparency, efficiency, virtue, convenience and flexibility." Oliver thinks Stuart something of a prig. Actually, says Oliver, Stuart has the soul of a "portly" man, despite his gymnasium-enhanced figure. Oliver is more than happy to elaborate: "His soul is portly, his principles are portly, and I trust his deposit account is portly too. Do not be deceived by the slim husk he currently presents for inspection."

Oliver is busy, meanwhile, with "special projects" whose fruition nobody seems to see. He is some sort of writer and sees conversation as a way to rehearse his literary pyrotechnics, though, as Gillian points out, "He cares more about the words than the things themselves." Gillian is the breadwinner and acts as a buffer of sorts between her second husband and the world: "I think -- I hope -- that if I keep a structure to our lives, then Oliver can rattle around inside without coming to much harm." Of course, when she mentions this to Oliver, he replies, "What? Like a padded cell?"

All this prickly, obsessive nattering and squabbling is addressed directly at you, dear reader. All three characters have great faith that you are not only their confidante, but the arbiter of justice as well, the Great Seer who will finally and definitively wrest some Great Truth out of this mishmash of stories, gossip and half truths. (Gillian will also show great concern for your sex life, specifically the "friendly" "married sex" that she is certain you are trying to decide whether or not to have as you read late at night, in bed with a book and a partner. And given the demographics of those who buy hardcover fiction, she is probably right.)

It's awfully flattering to be at the center of this group's attention. As a whole, they are intelligent, witty, wise and deeply entertaining. And if they all seem a little too familiar, perhaps that's because Barnes is awfully good at constructing lifelike characters. Or it could just mean that you read "Talking It Over" 10 years ago. But you needn't worry if you aren't well versed in their story. Stuart, Oliver, Gillian and their supporting cast are quite anxious to fill you in.

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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