Formally/stylistically, Talking It Over is a whole lot of fun. In each chapter, we get alternating first-person narratives—mostly from the three main characters (Gillian, Oliver, and Stuart), but from others as well (Gillian’s mother, Oliver’s landlady, et cetera). Each character has a distinct voice, and we often hear about the same events from different characters’ perspectives, with the result that everyone’s unreliability/subjectivity is emphasized: both Gillian and Oliver remember him flipping through a phone book on the day that Gillian and Stuart got married, but she describes it as him looking for “people with silly names” while he talks about trying to make everyone laugh “by looking up relevant professionals like Divorce Lawyers and Rubber Goods Purveyors” (10, 13). The text often addresses the reader directly, and is playful in other ways as well: in the first chapter, we read about a disagreement that Gillian, Oliver, and Stuart had about pronouns, and in their sections of narration in that chapter, each one uses pronouns in the way that he or she had argued for. All this is excellent, and makes me want to read more by Julian Barnes.

In terms of plot, though, this was not quite the book for me. It’s a love triangle: Stuart and Oliver have known each other since they were teenagers, and are basically best friends (they’re now in their early 30s). Stuart works in a bank and is practical, somewhat staid, and financially comfortable; Oliver teaches English as a Foreign Language, fills his conversations with references to opera and literature, and never has enough money. Despite his bravado, Oliver isn’t actually all that self-confident, and despite his occasional awkwardness, Stuart isn’t necessarily as dull as he seems, but Stuart and Oliver play off one another, each emphasizing certain things about himself in opposition to the other, because that’s the kind of friendship they have. Stuart meets Gillian and the two of them start dating, and they have a summer where they spend a whole lot of time with Oliver, too. After which Stuart and Gillian get married, after which Oliver realizes he’s in love with Gillian, after which Gillian realizes that maybe marriage to Stuart is not what she wants after all. I think my patience for monogamous-relationship-problems in contemporary-ish fiction is pretty limited, and as the book went on I found the characters’ dilemmas more tedious than moving.

Still, there were lots of pleasing things in this book, like a great conversation between Oliver and Gillian’s mother about tomatoes on Gillian and Stuart’s wedding day, or Gillian’s description of when she realized she was falling in love with Stuart (not, she says, that you can really point to a single moment), or Oliver’s description of the summer in which he and Stuart and Gillian spent a lot of time together as being “like one perfectly held note, one exact and translucent colour” (42).

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