I read part one of this book in one sitting, flipped the book shut, looked at the cover and said aloud, "Damn."
That's always a good sign.
Part one tells the story of how Tony and his friends Alex and Colin meet Adrian in high school and welcome him into their circle. Adrian is the kind of kid who is so intelligent that his contributions to class discussions give their teachers pause, but he never seems like a dick about it. Tony and his friends have metaphorical boners for Literature and Philosophy, and they are kind of in awe of Adrian as they graduate and go their separate ways for college. Tony struggles through a difficult relationship with Veronica, the entirety of which she spends fucking with him without actually fucking him. After they break up Tony learns that she has begun to date Adrian. Tony graduates from college and takes the summer to clear his head by traveling across America, then returns home to learn that Adrian has committed suicide.
This encompasses the first sixty pages of the novel, which reads much like Tony's journal looking back on the events after forty years of distance. In part two, we learn that Tony is a retired divorcee whose life is satisfactory if not satisfying:
"I survived. 'He survived to tell the tale' - that's what people say, don't they? History isn't the lies of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now. It's more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated."
Tony is cruising along in this unremarkable life when Veronica's mother passes away and, somehow having possession of Adrian's diary, wills it to Tony. He must tangle with Veronica again in his attempt to actually get the diary, and he begins to realize that the events of part one weren't exactly as he remembered them. It turns Tony's brain inside out, and upsets the complacency of his life.
"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. 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 too bother me too much, and had succeeded -- and how pitiful that was."
I've never read Julian Barnes before, so I can't compare this to the rest of his work, but holy Jesus on a stick can this man write a sentence that packs a punch. Maybe it's just my state of mind lately, which has admittedly been less-than-optimistic with a twist of nostalgia and longing, but the writing really and truly leapt off the page at me. It's relatively sparse - sixty pages to cover all that up there - but it's so weighty and insightful. Meditations on the foggy balance between history and memory, the uncertainty of personal identity in the face of time and doubters, reluctant acceptance of aging, regret and loss.
"Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to it eventual loss by wearing us down by proving, however long it takes, that life isn't all it's cracked up to be."
And the ending...It's just fucking brilliant. Can I give a book seven or eight stars? Barnes deserves it, as this book slides easily (and at the last minute) into my favorite books of the year.