Julian Barnes has certainly improved a bit in the last 25 years. I recently read his wonderful latest book, The Sense of an Ending (review here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/309538011), and for my second Barnes, turned to this, one of his earliest, from 1986. Both books document a long life, but the style is very different. There is a promising novel struggling to reveal itself here, but this isn't it.
It is the story of Jean, told in three parts: as a late teen on the cusp of marriage at the end of WW2, in middle age, and then approaching her 100th birthday in 2020. The first two are conventional enough, but the third is too concerned with theology (15 different arguments for and against the existence of God/gods), radical feminism, euthanasia and elderly care, philosophy, "big brother" and futurology. The points of debate echo issues in earlier sections, but it just doesn't work as a coherent narrative and the character development didn't ring true.
Jean is naive and not especially intelligent or well-educated, and as the story is told from her point of view, the first section in particular is told in a rather abrupt and simple style that I didn't find very enticing. Somehow, by the middle section, she is taking expensive long-haul holidays on her own - and with her teenage son's blessing.
The coverage of sex is both poignant (reminiscent of McEwan's On Chesil Beach (review here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/23326931)) and comical - especially the excerpts of a coy sex manual and appointments with a family planning doctor who merely baffles Jean.
The descriptions of loneliness are well-done, too: "He had girlfriends, but he found, when he was with them, that he never felt quite what he was expected to feel: the inaccessibility of group pleasure, he discovered, could even extend to gatherings of two. Sex didn't make him feel lonely; but it didn't... make him feel particularly accompanied. As for male camaraderie, there often seemed something false about it. Groups of men got together because they feared complications.... they wanted certainty; they wanted definite rules. Look at monasteries. Look at pubs."
The final section was written almost before the internet, but spends a lot of time describing a cross between Wikipedia and Google, and people's relationship with it ("Sessions might turn you from a serious enquirer into a mere gape-mouthed browser."). It's cleverly prescient, though not totally accurate, which exacerbates the contrast between the this section and the more realistic earlier sections.
The recurring themes are fear and bravery: fear of flying, death, sex (McEwan), state snooping, and God, but they are light in the first part and overindulged in the final section. Related to that, there's a fair amount of running away, both literal and metaphorical.
Despite my criticisms, there are flashes of the wordsmith to come:
* "The word 'prostitute' sidled into her mind like a vamp through a door."
* "Phrases dropped from the page and stuck like burrs to her winceyette nightdress."
* "What puzzled her was how closely you could live beside someone without any sense of intimacy."
* "Market towns - the sort of places with a bus garage but no cathedral."
* "The hurricane, excreting the black smoke of its own obituary."
* "The presence of this forceful girl rendering him almost translucent."
* "The night's clouds oozed drizzle onto the car."
* "Anyway I don't think you're a... lesbian
... her pause disinfecting the word, making it sound distant and theoretical."
* "a very old Electrolux shaver... so old-fashioned in design that it looked like something else, perhaps a sexual appliance of unpopular function."!