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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
When last we met Stuart, Oliver, and Gillian in Julian Barnes's 1991 Talking It Over, Stuart had met and fallen companionably in love with Gillian, who loved him in return. Alas, on the very day of their nuptials, Oliver, Stuart's superurbane best friend, declared the depths of his not-so-companionable, deeply passionate love for Gillian as well. Gillian, who at first denied her feelings, soon found herself likewise head-over-heels for Oliver, so she left Stuart, and she and Oliver moved abroad.
Now, ten years later, Barnes returns to the scene of the crime in Love, etc. Ten years older, and ostensibly ten years wiser, this desperately entangled threesome resume their tale.
The narrative structure of Love, etc., following that of Talking It Over, allows the reader direct access to the inner thoughts of the characters; each, in turn, speaks directly to the reader, as to an old friend, attempting to explain their version of the inexplicable ways of the heart. Stuart, Oliver, and Gillian are joined in this enterprise by a host of secondary characters -- Gillian's mom, Stuart's second ex-wife, Oliver's former landlady, etc. -- each of whom serves to reflect a piece of the story that the others either aren't privy to or just aren't willing to share.
The story they tell is this: Stuart, devastated by Gillian's betrayal ten years ago, moves to the United States where, in the way of Americans, he prospers, working at a number of professions and ultimately finding himself in the organic food distribution business. Sensing a demand back home, he returns to England and builds a small chain of organic food stores. For their part, Oliver and Gillian set up housekeeping in France, have a daughter, undergo a series of marital crises, and have another daughter, all before returning to England, where Gillian thrives as a picture restorer while Oliver tinkers with various projects.
Now Stuart reenters their lives, determined to help them escape the somewhat reduced circumstances in which he's found them. He hires Oliver, rents the couple the house that he and Gillian so briefly occupied, and is generally helpful -- throwing the threesome into another potential crisis.
The questions that linger for the three of them, the questions that Barnes so beautifully captures in this spare novel, are whether life can accurately be described as "love, etc." -- love in the center, with all of life's other stuff relegated to the et cetera -- or whether love is merely one among many of life's experiences. And can love survive those experiences? Are there people who are destined to love only one person, while others can love many, whether serially or simultaneously? And is there any way to know the truth of our emotions, or are we doomed to hide that truth from ourselves?
The characters that Barnes crafts, using their voices and the voices of others, are vivid and passionate, characters whose lives will resonate with the reader long after the novel has been put down.
Kathleen Fitzpatrick is assistant professor of English and Media Studies at Pomona College in Claremont, California.