Now in his 60s, Tony Webster is retired, divorced, and taking stock of his life. He begins by recounting his youth and young adulthood, and his social circle, which revolved around Adrian, the aloof ringleader. These relationships falter on leaving school, and when Adrian begins dating Tony’s former girlfriend Veronica. Years later, Veronica’s mother passes away. Tony is quite surprised to learn she left him a bequest. He gets back in touch with Veronica, and makes a nuisance of himself in attempts to understand the bequest. The reader learns a lot about Tony’s true self, even as Tony remains oblivious. As Veronica says repeatedly, “You just don’t get it.”
Julian Barnes packed so much into this novella, and yet I’m hard pressed to explain just how he did it. The plot appears straightforward, as everyday events unfold through Tony’s eyes. But it is actually layered with complexity, requiring the reader to flip back and forth to see what they missed on a first reading. Little by little, you realize how much memories are influenced by what you want — and don’t want — to remember. Small but important details can escape notice, leaving two people with completely different impressions of events. And sometimes these different points of view have tragic consequences. So it came as a complete shock when Tony finally “got it,” and I understood what was actually going on all those years. Or at least I think I understand. I may need to read it yet again.
With a series of haunting images that set the stage, an unreliable narrator, and an overall sense of loss, this book will stay with you long after turning the last page. As Tony says:
What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed. (p. 1)