Friday, November 12, 2021

Novellas in November: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Tony Webster, retired and in his later years, looks back on two of his relationships with women, one when he was a student at university, and the other with his wife, Margaret, who divorced him after twelve years of marriage. 

At the beginning, Tony spends a good bit of time describing his high school relationship with three boys, and most especially Adrian.  As he moves on to college, he talks about growing up, sex and sexual relationships, and how different such things were in his youth in the sixties.

Veronica was his first serious girlfriend in college, and the relationship breaks up eventually. Later he finds out that Veronica and Adrian, his friend from high school, are lovers. He feels that he has been betrayed and writes a scathing letter to Adrian, who commits suicide a couple of years later. His ex-wife, Margaret, plays a supportive role. They are still friends, and they meet occasionally for dinner and discuss his life.

This is general fiction, not a mystery, but it has some elements of a mystery story. After Tony is retired, he receives a small bequest from Veronica's mother after her death, and one of the objects she has left him is Adrian's diary. He did not know this woman well, only met her once when he visited Veronica for a weekend. Why did she leave him money and the diary? Veronica comes back into his life at this point. She has possession of the diary and she will not release it. Why?

I like the gradual unraveling of the story, as Tony reveals the surprising and disturbing explanation of events that lead to the bequest. The story is narrated in first person by Tony, thus we don't always know how much is true or remembered through the filter of his character and hang-ups. I liked that the story kept me thinking after I had finished the book. Did I agree with the narrator's assessment of himself and the situation? 

It was an interesting, thought-provoking read. The themes I noted were regret and remorse, blame, and memory. How much we can trust our memories over time? Also, it is an excellent character study.

This month I am joining in the Novellas in November 2021 reading event. The event celebrates the short novel, or novella. The host blogs are 746 Books and Bookish Beck


Publisher:   Alfred A. Knopf, 2011
Length:       163 pages
Format:       Hardcover
Settings:     UK
Genre:        General fiction
Awards:      Booker Prize
Source:       Purchased at the Planned Parenthood Book Sale, 2021.


Rick Robinson said...

It’s interesting that the cover says “a novel” but you’re reading it as a novella. I’m afraid it doesn’t sound appealing to me, but I respect your judgment so, since the writing is good, I’ll call it a maybe.

TracyK said...

Rick, I have seen many novellas labeled as novels. (And many short stories that are 20 - 30 pages called novellas.) For the purposes of this event the number of pages of this book counts as a novella. Just guessing, but I would say this book is probably a good bit longer than the word count that the Hugo and Nebula awards use as a guideline for a novella.

When I was reading my review before I posted, I thought that the story sounded like something I would not like either, but I did. In fact, it is my favorite of the first seven novellas I have read. But reviews are mixed, and many readers did not like it at all.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I loved it but some in my book group didn't. I think they made a film of it too. Yes, what is a novella exactly. Is Ethan Frome a novella? Not sure. I think it has to be more than just a page amount somehow.

Margot Kinberg said...

That is a really interesting question, Tracy - how far can we trust our memories? And how well do we really know the other people in our lives? It sounds as though this is a good look at the times, too, as well as just the one character.

col2910 said...

I have this one on the pile somewhere. I hope it's better than Flaubert's Parrot.

TracyK said...

Patti, I did look up "definitions" of what a novella is lengthwise earlier, and the only consistent answer was a fictional piece between a short story and a novel with anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 words, and somewhere else I read that that was about 100-200 pages.

But there is also the issue of how many pages in which edition, and whether the type is large or small and the book is a large or small format. And margins and spacing can be different. So page counts can be meaningless.

For example, in a Penguin edition, ETHAN FROME was 99 pages, in a Signet Classics edition it was 176 pages, a Kindle edition listed it as 89 pages, and a Dover edition was 77 pages.

For this reading event, there is a group read of ETHAN FROME, so it fits the definition used in this event, which is to aim for "150 pages or under, with a firm upper limit of 200 pages". I hadn't planned on joining in on reading ETHAN FROME but maybe I should. I have never read it.

TracyK said...

Margot, I have thought about that question often, especially with my own memories. I only remember a few specific events from my childhood, and I know I have suppressed some things.

And yes, it is a good look at the times. I was in high school and college in the 1960s, and it was quite different back then, but possibly not as different as the narrator remembers.

TracyK said...

Col, I had not heard of Flaubert's Parrot so I looked it up. There are of course others who did not like it, and on Goodreads it got more 3 star ratings than 5 star. I checked out your review from 2012 and you were not too hard on it. I may give it a try someday, since it is fairly short and it could be interesting.

Just guessing, but I think The Sense of an Ending is better, although you still may not like it.

Christophe said...

Thanks for your review. I read little “literary” general fiction, but this title sounds appealing based on your review.

TracyK said...

Christophe, I read mostly genre fiction, but I am happy when I find general fiction that I enjoy. This one worked well for me, and I am going to look into other books he wrote also.

col2910 said...

Barnes also tried his hand at some PI fiction in the 80s with a series of four Duffy novels under the pseudonym of Dan Cavanagh. I'm a sucker for PI fiction. I have them but still haven't read them. I think they were re-released a few years ago for Kindle.

TracyK said...

Col, I did not know about those PI fiction novels under a different name. I will definitely look into those also.

Cath said...

I haven't read this but it was one of those high profile novels here in the UK, just a few years ago. It sounds interesting as I quite like these 'characters and their secrets' based stories.

CLM said...

I read this about nine years ago and don't remember it well, other than disliking most of the characters (which doesn't prevent me from appreciating a book but does not help). I have read his other books and liked them more, especially the one about Sherlock Holmes. I don't remember if you have read that but it is worth putting on your TBR.

I curled up last night with a Patricia Wentworth I did not remember, which is always pleasant.

TracyK said...

Cath, it was the secrets that had been kept (at least from the protagonist) that interested me also. I had heard of this book and the author, but I don't know much about other books he has written.

TracyK said...

Constance, I did not dislike most of the characters, except for Veronica and her family. I am glad to hear that you have liked other books he wrote, I will have to look into them and the one about Sherlock Holmes.

I haven't read a Patricia Wentworth book since September, and only two this year. Probably because I was reading so many Poirot books there for a while.

Sam said...

I read this one back in 2012 when I was trying to read all the Man Booker Prize winners. I remember it as being really character-driven, and I liked that, but thought it really got good when a lot of the "truths" were revealed and the plot thickened. The copy I read was not only short on pages, lots of them were left blank on purpose as "breaks" so I'm betting there were only about 150 written pages in it.

TracyK said...

Sam, I liked the last half much better than the first half and I think some people had the opposite reaction. I just could not figure Veronica out, but that is the way life is.

My copy did not have so many blank pages, but even so it was probably closer to 155 pages...

When you were reading Man Booker winners, did you enjoy most of them?