Ruth Scurr at the TLS:
Julian Barnes’s thirteenth novel, like many of its predecessors and his memoir, Levels of Life (TLS, May 3, 2013), is divided into three parts and concerned with love. In the first part, written in the first person, the character Paul, one in a long line of Barnes’s mildly unlikeable but refined male narrators, reminisces late in life about his early relationship with a much older married woman, Susan. Paul and Susan met in the 1960s in suburban Surrey at their local tennis club, when he was nineteen, and home from Sussex University for the summer, and she was forty-eight. Their affair was not a stereotypical “sweet summer interlude” but a romance that lasted over a decade, which, in retrospect, Paul recognizes as the defining, or only, story of his life.
The comic incongruousness of Continental sophistication transplanted to provincial England is evoked early in the novel when a delicatessen opens in the village: “some thought [it] subversive in its offerings of European goods: smoked cheeses, and knobbly sausages hanging like donkey cocks in their string webbing”. Paul rejects the French cliché of an older woman teaching “the arts of love” to a younger man, as in Colette’s novel Chéri (1920): “But there was nothing French about our relationship, or about us. We were English and so had only those morally laden English words to deal with: words like scarlet woman, and adulteress”.