The Lemon Table (Julian Barnes, Short Stories)

5 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
A dense and beautifully written collection of stories whose only common thread is that all of its main characters are growing old, and either contemplating death, or the life they’ve lived: the mistakes, the regrets, the small joys of everyday life and love.  Probably my favorite work by Julian Barnes, its characters vary between being poignant and polished, or vulgar and offensive — sometimes all of the above all at once.  It is an enthralling, emotional read that deserves to be not only read, but repeated.

Greater Detail:
There are 11 short stories here, with a variety of characters, time periods and situations.  They’re all extraordinarily dense, so it’s hard to give enough details to entice without trying to summarize the whole story, but some of my favorites were:

1. Appetite – a wife tries to soothe her husband by reading old recipes to elicit some spark of memory in his Alzheimer’s-ravaged mind.  With time, he reveals flashes of a personality that she never suspected was underneath the sophisticated, refined man she married.

2. The Fruit Cage – a son is caught between his eighty-year-old parents and their sudden separation; we see how complicated past and future can be as he reflects on their marriage and how well he really knows his parents.

3. Hygiene – an aging WWII vet prepares for a day in London.  He has a list of chores from his wife, dinner with some old war buddies, and an afternoon booked with a prostitute he’s been visiting for over two decades now.

4. The Things You Know – two extraordinarily catty, lonely widows who meet for their monthly breakfasts, each holding onto long ago secrets, and competing for superiority through idealized versions of their dead husbands.

5. “The Story of Mats Israelson” –a tantalizing portrayal of a quiet affair that never quite happens, it deals with the constraints that gossip and the idea of virtue put upon us, and, of course, the impact unfulfilled love and dreams can have

Other interesting stories included:
“A Short History of Hairdressing” — takes us through a man’s life via a series of trips to the barbershop

“Knowing French” — showcases the relationship between an elderly lady and Julian Barnes

“The Silence” — follows a famous composer at the end of his life.
Though a couple felt a little flat, most were moving and compelling.  The characters are intricately drawn and incredibly layered considered how briefly we know them.

The running theme throughout isn’t just how we change as we age, or how we reflect on our lives, but also how well we really know one another.  In Barnes’s world, time often muddies, rather than clarifies, our true personalities, and we feel this tension and confusion clearly, with each story inspiring emotions that will stay with you long after the narrative ends.

Comparisons to Other Authors:
So in terms of other books that talk about aging, David Gates’s collection Wonders of the Invisible World has a few stories on this topic; otherwise, I’m not positive how to compare short story collections… he’s a little more whole story than Amy Hempel, and perhaps a little similar to Tobias Wolfe though with a broader, more European perspective?

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Posted in Literary Fiction

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