Molly Young in The New York Times:
Are you prepared for a vision of sizzling sexuality? Picture this. A woman dressed in brown suede brogues and a below-the-knee skirt, her legs obscured by stockings. Sandy-gray hair. A discreet brooch pinned to her blouse, a formal manner of speaking, a keen interest in antiquity and a tendency to suffer from migraines. These qualities may not scream “racy” or “seductive” or “exotic” to you, but you are not the narrator of Julian Barnes’s 25th book.
The siren is Elizabeth Finch, a teacher of adult education courses in London two decades ago. The narrator is her student, the somewhat dimwitted but diligent Neil. On the first day of class, Elizabeth outlines her pedagogical method: “I shall not attempt to stuff you with facts as a goose is stuffed with corn; this would only lead to an engorged liver, which would be unhealthy.” Neil is besotted. Intrigued by Finch’s poise, dazzled by her confidence, he concocts wild fantasies about her extracurricular life: silk pajamas, Italian lakes, French vineyards, mysterious lovers.
When the course ends, Neil bravely invites his crush to lunch, and for 20 years they dine twice or thrice annually. It’s unclear what Elizabeth gets out of the meetings. What Neil gets is the opportunity to be outwitted by a woman of formidable reticence and intellect. He is, if not quite a glutton for punishment, then at least someone with a hearty appetite for it.