Forty years later, retiree Tony Webster slowly comes to new realizations about a tragic event from his early twenties and the part he played in what happened. After his first girlfriend leaves him for one of his best friends, said friend winds up taking his own life shortly after. And then, life moved on. Tony traveled around, got married, had a kid, got divorced, worked a steady job for forty years and retired. He’s put Veronica and Adrian mostly out of his mind until a letter in the mail brings it all back, and with more clarity than he’s had in decades.
Adrian was the smartest boy in class, who could talk circles around the schoolmasters and stumped his classmates with his airy, philosophical talk. When Tony introduces him to Veronica he senses her attraction to Adrian right away and it makes him jealous. Still, he’s shocked to receive a letter from Adrian announcing that he and Veronica are dating.
Tony relates these events in a halting, uncertain manner, always making allowances for the haziness of his memory, the passage of time, and his own, self-interested perspective. Was Veronica a controlling girlfriend, or does it just make him feel better to think so? Did he handle their breakup as maturely as he thought? Was he actually a good friend to Adrian?
These questions haunt the second half of this very short novel, as Tony reluctantly reconnects with Veronica to get her side of the story. Veronica, in Tony’s telling, is a complicated character and a hard one to grasp. She’s angry, abrupt and withholding beyond all reason, constantly telling Tony that he just doesn’t get it and never will. Yet she keeps responding to his attempts to reach out.
Though the whole puzzle can never be solved, eventually Tony stumbles upon some information that gives him a clearer picture. It’s a devastating revelation, if a bit undercut by the narrative tricks taken to get there.
Barnes is excellent at creating a full character with incredible speed. Tony Webster seems real right off the bat and only grows more so over time. While the plotting may rely a little too heavily on extremely unlikely events, the prose was enough to make this Booker Prize-winner a worthwhile experience.