Book Review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

I read the last pages of The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes before turning out the light last night. I wanted to like it more than I actually did. I wanted to like the narrator more than I did. Looking back on events from the perspective of approaching age, he's too often self-pitying and obtuse. I was wearied by his obsessive self-analysis--and his faulty analysis of others. I was turned off by his sexual passivity, and his passive aggressive relationship with the former girlfriend, Veronica, which forms the core narrative of the book. And even though I myself recall such a relationship as a schoolboy--or perhaps because?--I found his hero-worship of the rather nerdy, snobbish and generally unattractive Adrian to be unwarranted by the character of his would-be but never-quite friend, whose intellectual superiority he, the narrator, seemed to take for granted.

So I wanted Tony to be more of a mensch. I wanted him to take some responsibility for his early, failed marriage to Margaret, the non-mysterious woman in his life, and their daughter, Susie. I wanted him to stand up to the mysterious one, Veronica, whom he petulantly wounds, instead, with a spiteful letter that she returns to him, spitefully, when he tries to reconnect with her in later years. She wants to throw his inadequacies, as a man, as a lover, back in his face

I will say, though, that I was intrigued by the twist at the end, which explained the mystery he was trying to unravel--in order to make some sense of a life in which he remains perpetually adrift. As Veronica tells him constantly (and a bit irritatingly, to this reader as well as to Tony himself) he just "doesn't get it." When he does, finally, "get it," it's frankly a complete surprise, but one that does create the "sense of an ending."

And finally, I was not much engaged, as others apparently were (the book was a NYT best seller) by the philosophical ramblings about time and the fragmentary nature of memory. I found little that was actually new and original in the treatment of a theme that has been with us, in modern literature, at least since Marcel Proust's great masterpiece. I'm perhaps a little simple-minded about this, but it seemed to me that the book was rather more heavy on the "telling" of the theme than on its "showing." And the mournful tone of the narrator's reflections on it left me, yes, wanting more strength of character from him, in the face of his evident suffering. I wanted him to be, well, a bit more Buddhist in the way he looks back on his life.