Review: Us Three

Us three forever…come what may. A naive promise of lifelong friendship made at the tender age of 8. To actually hold on to a promise made in the frenzy of a playground during lunch break, however, is an achievement for the books and Ruth Jones has chronicled its journey over four decades for all the right reasons.

Welsh girls Lana Lloyd, Judith Harris and Catrin Kelly don’t remember a time they weren’t best friends. They’ve spent every waking moment together, and they’ve faced the trials and tribulations of school and teenage together. They’ve shared clothes and books and homes. They’ve relied on each other like they were life jackets.

Until they travel to Greece in the summer before departing to college. Life changing revelations, drunken mistakes, and a web of lies replace their childhood oath of unconditional love, forgiveness, and honesty. And when they are forced to choose between each other and beautiful boys, the bond between them begins to fray. The girls find themselves on the precipice of difficult choices over and over again, and they begin to question if their friendship will stand the test of time and adulthood. Keeping a promise like that can be demanding, especially when life has very different plans for all of you.

For all the drama that unfolds over a span of 40 years, Us Three is an easy read, to the point that it feels like it was written for the sole purpose of vacation reading. Although it begins Wattpad fanfiction-esque style (i.e., along the lines of he had burnt hazel hair and green orbs that caught me off guard every time he peered into my soul) that sounds all too overused, it’s the string of adjectives and lightheartedness that you yearn for towards the end, when the girls’ lives become impossible to disentangle.

What’s most remarkable though, is that the overarching sadness of the second half of the book stems not from the twisted situations our protagonists find themselves in, but their day-to-day lives, which have become entrenched in deception and pain. There is a certain nostalgia that seeps through the pages: all you want is for the girls to find the happiness that once came naturally to them.

Every character has a unique voice, and because Jones gives them all an immaculate story arc, the sense of ending that begins to creep into the final pages feels complete.

Unfortunately for this otherwise incredible book, Us Three falls short on emotional power. It is rife with cliches and repetitive sequences; once you discover the pattern, there is nothing left for you to be surprised by. Even in its darkest moments, I found myself incapable of producing a visceral reaction. It’s the roller coaster analogy: this book climbs all the way up, but then rolls back down, robbing you of the adrenaline you’ve been so excitedly waiting for.

Perhaps it is this absence of a compelling and impactful narrative that makes Us Three easy to breeze through. Dramatic enough to keep you invested, but not so much that you are a sobbing mess by the beach. If maybe, the book were converted into a script for an online drama series, this endearing yet heart-wrenching tale would fare better.

Review: The Only Story

Julian Barnes’ latest novel (2018) is every bit a love story, but in more ways than one, not. In this very long story that spans decades, there is love lost and love gained, love given and love taken. There is filial love, romantic love, unrequited love and pure lust. And our narrator, Paul, reflects on all these kinds of love; all the myriad kinds of love he has experienced in his lifetime.

But as we fail to recognise initially, The Only Story is also about anger and about trauma, about anger as a result of trauma and trauma as a result of anger. It is about the various pitfalls of adulthood and the naivete of adolescence, and it is about loss, tangible and intangible. All of it, borne and witnessed by someone madly, deeply and irrevocably in love.

The Only Story opens with university first year Paul (19), visiting his family in suburban London over summer. His mother has signed him up for the local tennis clubs, in the hopes that her son might meet some beautiful ladies. Paul heads there reluctantly, and meet some ladies he does. Only it’s a lady, Susan (48), who is married with two adult offspring. At this point, the novel is all too predictable: Susan’s marriage is in shambles; Mr. Elephant Pants — as her husband is lovingly called – is a morbidly obese alcoholic and a fantastic villain. Paul is young and rebellious, and he is reveling in masculinity. Paul believes that beautiful Susan (who is also wise and nothing like the rest of her ‘played out generation’) needs to be rescued.

And so follows a relationship that is for the tabloids and village gossip. While Susan is never too vocal about the relationship, Paul is far from ashamed. In fact, he wishes his relationship was even more scandalous. Little does Paul know that he would be in it for a lifetime, and that the consequences of his first and only love are beyond his comprehension.

The Only Story, Julian Barnes © 2020

It doesn’t take a lot of intellect to realise Paul and Susan’s relationship will go downhill and eventually end. The real mystery lies in the when and the why. Why did Paul believe Susan needed rescuing? What happened when they ran away to London? When did Susan first resort to the whiskey? The answers are hard to find: Paul is somewhat of an open book and Susan remains an enigma throughout their tale. No one, friend or for, ever knew Susan. Consequently, there are either vague answers given by a man in love, or no answers at all. Paul frantically searches for explanations and answers as well, but time is precious when you are watching a loved one succumb to alcoholism and you are helpless.

As put by The Globe and Mail, the characters in the book end up nowhere (unless they die). But Barnes’ writes exceptionally, knitting an elaborate tale out of a relationship that doesn’t have a lot of substance to it. Paul, now half a decade later, draws endless conclusions about love and its exploits, which when listed out, seem overly pretentious. More often than not, I found myself saying, “No one asked for your two cents.”

However, amidst pages of long due realisations, there are two worth thinking about: first, “most love, even the most ardent and the most sincere, can, given the correct assault, curdle into a mixture of pity and anger”, and second, the lifelong power of prehistory on our relationships.

In the end, Barnes’ magnificent narration is what keeps the novel engaging, in spite of the lack of a significant plot twist or a dramatic cliffhanger. Perhaps, the cleverest device he uses is the shift of pronouns: Paul goes from “I” to “you” to “he” the farther he drifts from his relationship and the more estranged he gets from Susan. The anachronistic structure of the book, without emphasis on any specific event, is also intelligent, as it focuses on painting a larger picture of society and its perceptions of love.

I’d ask prospective readers to choose this book at their own risk: read it only if you are interested in the musings of a fifty something man as he looks back on his love story, his only story.