One of the great thrills of life is reading a book that resonates with life, in general, and my life, in particular. I experienced this as I read Julian Barnes’ book. In looking back at his life, Tony Webster, Barnes’ protagonist, recalls the impact of his first relationship with such vivid detail that this memory is etched in his mind. Are we not so impressionable when we are young, thereby making memories weigh more heavily on our minds than when we have become adults? Changes occurring in a long-term relationship, such as marriage, are much less likely to affect us than the changes we experience when we are young.
The difference in the way one behaves when one is growing up as opposed to being “grown-up” is pivotal in The Sense of an Ending. Thus, Tony discusses in detail his first meaningful relationship with a woman, Veronica, as it is occurring, and forty years later, when he receives a mysterious bequest from, the recently deceased, Mrs. Sara Ford, Veronica’s mother. Suddenly, Tony now feels compelled to deal with the past and his relationship with Veronica and Adrian, who had been a close friend until he started seeing Veronica. After he receives the note about the bequest, we learn of a letter that Tony had written to Veronica and Adrian upon hearing that the two of them were currently dating. The letter had a most vindictive angry tone to it. Because the letter serves as a focal point in the novel, with the reader becoming aware of it forty years later in Tony’s life, the author is able to create a greater sense of suspense and mystery. This very much adds to both the pleasure and poignance of this short novel.
Barnes speaks to the different way we experience youth and adulthood when Tony says:
When you’re young you want your emotions to be like the ones you read about in books. You want them to overturn your life, create and make a new reality. Later, I think you want them to do something more practical: You want them to support your life as it is and has become.
And so, the novel centers on a very strong emotion felt by Tony resulting in the letter he wrote to both Veronica and Adrian. The bequest he receives brings him back to that memory when he surmises:
When we are young and sensitive, we are also at our most sensitive….My younger self had come back to shock my older self with what the self had been, or was, or was sometimes capable of being.
As I read those words, I recalled a memory I had in my adolescence. I was very much attracted to a woman that I met when I was a sophomore in high school and, she was in 8th grade. Not wanting to reveal her identity I will call her Mandy. I found her absolutely striking. As I clumsily attempted to engage in conversation with her, I had the good fortune of having her mother on my side who couldn’t resist talking to me by asking general questions about my life. I felt a sense of relief talking to her mother while at the same time experiencing a sense of frustration at my inept efforts to have Mandy show some interest in me. After all, I was not seeking a date with her mother.
This same frustration that I experienced on my first encounter with Mandy continued throughout my high school years. Though I dated other girls, she was constantly on my mind those years. I recall double dating with a friend and the girl he brought to a high school dance with the result being my father, our chauffeur, doing practically all the talking. I remember seeing Mandy as an ice queen that I so badly wanted to break through. Tony’s wife Margaret had told him that “there were two sorts of women: those with clear edges to them, and those who implied mystery.” Mandy was the latter.
When I went to college, the fantasy of being with this girl continued. I recall persisting but never really getting anywhere with her. But her mother was ever so inviting almost clueing me into what seemed an interminable torture. Then it happened: During my sophomore year at college on Christmas break, I called her and she agreed to go on a date with me. I thought and thought about where I would take her and decided why not the movies as there was a James Bond film playing in town. She liked the idea thereby temporarily alleviating my anticipatory fears of how I might conduct myself during the evening.
I remember quite clearly when she accepted the date my having a frantic anxiety accompanied by a joy that it was finally coming to be. My body felt like an electric wire charged by emotions almost paralyzing me. But wow, it felt wonderful. When the big date arrived, Mandy’s mother was as always, amiable as can be. Her father, more like Mandy, was his typical stand-offish self staring at me through his thick whiskey shot lenses. Walking to the car, I eagerly opened the door for her showing her the gentleman I was, and then got into the driver’s seat. What came next threw my ecstasy into a panic. She immediately propositioned me by saying something to the effect: “let’s go to a hotel. My mother told me it’s okay.” I had never kissed her let alone held her hand, and yet, here she was now inviting me to have sex with her in a hotel.
Suffice it to say, I have no recollection of what happened that evening making it likely that my shock froze me insofar as I never ventured to ask her out again. Perhaps her mother had convinced her that I was the right person to experiment with because I was quite sure she was a virgin. My plan had been if we were hitting it off to start making out with her and see how that would go. She was proposing what appeared to me to be the opposite: sex with little passion. I imagine I was turned off by the idea inasmuch as what I had initially found so stimulating was this mysterious ice queen quality that she had forever, until that moment, exuded.
Years later, in my mid ‘20’s, I visited my old ally, her mother, and she told me that she could not understand what had happened between her daughter and me. I remember her telling me Mandy really liked me. I simply told her I was immature, that to be sure, in some sense, was true.
The story does not quite end there. In the age of technology and google, long lost connections can be revived through the internet. I googled her name and discovered that her sister was her guardian and had pleaded her civil case in court because some of her medical expenses had been denied. What struck me most, however, was the fact that in reading the brief of the case it mentioned that Mandy was incapacitated. Her resident address was listed in Manhattan, New York.
As I often visit a brother who lives in Manhattan, I set out with dogged determination to see what had become of my ice queen. I went with my wife, who Barnes, thank goodness for me, would most likely classify as having clear edges, to see if, in fact, Mandy was still living there. Upon arriving at her address in Manhattan, I asked the doorman if she was still living there. Surprised, he asked me how I knew her. When I told him, he said she had never been married and one evening had been running around outside naked resulting in her being taken away a few years earlier. Since that time, he had neither heard nor seen her.
The realness of the memories that Tony had had at an earlier stage helped elicit some of my own very private and sensitive memories during my adolescence. We cannot assign a price tag to memories that we cherish and that remain with us throughout the course of our lives. They are invaluable. It is these memories that we reflect upon so dearly as we pass through the milestones of life from birth onto death. That a novel could spark this chain of memories within me is the essence of how the magic of an author’s word can touch a reader.