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Love, etc.
by Julian Barnes
Knopf
240 pages, $23.00

Love etc

This book is like Valentine's Day chocolate from an old flame: one doesn't know whether to savor it lovingly or to x-ray it instead. But to those with the gizzard for it, Julian Barnes's lancet wit will go down as smooth as butterscotch. Love, etc., a continuation of his novel Talking It Over, reaches us through the voices of three major and several minor characters. The three principals address the reader for anywhere from a sentence to a couple of pages at a time, continuously deepening and frequently overturning our understanding of events. In this respect Love, etc. resembles a stupendously well-written episode of Once and Again, except that, refreshingly, all the characters lie to us and dislike one another. "Truth will out, old bean, eh?," one of the protagonists muses, before deciding that in fact "truth mostly does not out ... it mostly ins." Or, as Barnes wrote in Flaubert's Parrot, "What happened to the truth is not recorded." Barnes is probably good and sick of hearing about Flaubert's Parrot, as if he hadn't written nine—ten, now—other highly regarded novels and collections. For all its perverse pleasures, Love, etc. probably won't be elbowing Flaubert aside in the Barnes pantheon anytime soon, even if the new book does contain the surefire vocabulary builder "leveret cacks his scut" (the sort of line that makes one want to look up "his," just in case). Mordant and even suspenseful though it is, Love, etc. can't quite shake a certain reheatedness endemic to even the most free-standing of sequels—for which, as John Updike and Philip Roth have shown, a trilogy-making capstone is the only sure cure. May it come soon.

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