At 176 pages in the print version, Julian Barnes' "The Sense of an Ending" will appeal to many book clubs if only because it will spare many members from that last-minute Evelyn Wood speed reading session to see what happens at the end.
But whether or not readers choose this 2011 Man Booker Prize winner because of its length, the novel provides ample opportunities for discussion and commentary. As if that weren't enough, it's amusing as well.
Barnes is an esteemed writer with more than a dozen previous novels, but he seems to have hit a sweet spot with "The Sense of an Ending." The book is by turns humorous, tragic, surprisingly emotional and yet restrained, and most wonderfully, the title only makes sense when the last page is turned.
The story begins, as many British novels do, with scenes of private school bonding among a group of friends who welcome a new friend into their clique. The whip-smart Adrian Finn quickly becomes the boy they all want to emulate and yet the narrator, Anthony, both admires him and works hard not to be viewed as ingratiating. The writing pulses with lines that capture a certain period of adolescence: "This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn't turn out to be like Literature."
After the friends grow up and move on to college, a tragedy occurs that troubles Anthony deeply, even as he moves on quickly with a life that doesn't measure up to his teenage hopes and desires.
In the second part of the book, Anthony is a divorced man looking back on his somewhat uninteresting life when the tragedy of his youth resurfaces in the form of an unexpected bequest from a woman he had only met once. He spends the remainder of the novel unraveling the reasons behind the bequest, and that journey causes him to think about his life in a completely different way:
"How time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turns out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them."
"The Sense of an Ending" reminded me of Richard Yates' "Revolutionary Road" in the way that the final pages upend the reader's assumptions. It is highly recommended for book clubs or for anyone who enjoys an excellent — and short — read.