Book Group: views on 'The Lemon Table'

Christina Patterson reveals your sweet and sour views on Julian Barnes's collection of stories
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The Independent Culture

Happy anniversary, darling! Like many a man before me (and I'm not even a man), I'm afraid it had slipped my mind, but jellyfeeble reminded me that it's a year since our first date. Mo245 even confessed to early doubts about the relationship, and anxieties about fickleness and stamina. Shame on you, Mo! A date's a date. A commitment's, er, a cause for panic. OK, so on occasion we didn't quite phone when we said we would - there was, at some point, something unreasonable about two weeks' extra notice - but we always came through in the end. So, here it is: red roses, a card and a candle-lit dinner, all rolled into a book-group round-up.

Happy anniversary, darling! Like many a man before me (and I'm not even a man), I'm afraid it had slipped my mind, but jellyfeeble reminded me that it's a year since our first date. Mo245 even confessed to early doubts about the relationship, and anxieties about fickleness and stamina. Shame on you, Mo! A date's a date. A commitment's, er, a cause for panic. OK, so on occasion we didn't quite phone when we said we would - there was, at some point, something unreasonable about two weeks' extra notice - but we always came through in the end. So, here it is: red roses, a card and a candle-lit dinner, all rolled into a book-group round-up.

Ramblingsid, who, if memory serves, wasn't around in those early days, couldn't suppress his delight. "I am currently halfway through the book," he announced, "and can't resist indulging in a quick burst of enthusiasm. The Lemon Table is a fantastic book!" It was, he said, the best of the ones he'd read "by a long way", a "delightful mixture of sadness and whimsical humour".

Isabella341 agreed. "It can be hard to find good new short stories," she said, "because they are so difficult to write, but The Lemon Table finds a balance of humour and poignancy that I found very moving." Jellyfeeble was a little more cautious. After a general expression of astonishment about time flying etc, she said that she didn't "normally like short stories", but was "hoping these will change my mind". LK2026 was also no great fan. "I usually find," she said, "that just as I'm getting used to the style and characterisation, they end. But these," she admitted, "weren't bad." She liked the theme of "growing old disgracefully", but found some of them rather tinged with regret. "ps I'm female," she added helpfully. After a year of gender-bending shots in the dark, it was time to get a few things straight.

HaydenT was also a bit of a short-story virgin. "I like a book to get my teeth into, and to finish reading when I feel like it, rather than having to do so when the story ends," he said. In spite of his initial reluctance, he was finding the stories "very rewarding". Responding to "Mr Tonkin's" question about whether or not the stories made a "cohesive whole", he replied that they were all about "the ageing process and how one's attitudes change as death approaches". He was, he said, in his "early fifties (and male BTW)" and was beginning to think about his own mortality. And then he made an astonishing confession. "I have been with this book group from the start," he declared, "and have read the great majority of the books. But this," he added, "is the first time I have been moved to contribute." Holy Moses! We all know that men can be a touch taciturn, of course, but a whole year of silence? Surely something of a record!

Then it was time for Shirley to chip in - Shirley, who has also been there from the start, but who's been very far from silent. In her usual measured tones, she said that she had "enjoyed most of the stories". Barnes had, she thought, "a good insight into older people's views" and "treats it all with wry humour". It was, she continued, in a sudden burst of enthusiasm, "a great collection".

Mo245 thought that The Lemon Table was "a great name for a book dealing with the later stages of life". She "loved the imagery of old age being that delicious mix of acidity and sweetness. Kind of reminded me," she added darkly, "of a few people." After a disappointing start, she was "well and truly won over". The story "Hygiene", she said, "was brilliant, sharp, focused, a joy to read", and "Knowing French" left her "with that sense of wasted sadness". The book, as a whole, came across as "enormously realistic".

To jellyfeeble (not the book group as a whole, mind) she admitted that she hadn't been sure at first "that the editors at The Independent would keep the book group going. I suspected we would do about three books at most," she said, "before it would all peter out." Thanks a lot. Your faith is touching.

Meanwhile, jellyfeeble was changing her mind about short stories. "I am enjoying the diversity of each one," she declared, "even though there seems to be a common thread." Mo245 was caught up in HaydnT's musings on mortality. "I'm not entirely convinced," she said, "that people become more able to deal with the prospect of death as they get older. I suspect," she mused, "many use humour to hide their emotions behind where death is concerned... Personally," she confessed, "I would be quite keen to manage to use humour to avoid the subject until after I am safely tucked six feet under or scattered to the wind."

You see, that's what you get when you've been going steady for a year. None of this small-talk nonsense but straight for the jugular and on to matters of life and death. "I like the idea that life is for the living," HaydnT continued. "That's where the book really succeeds. It looks at a generation and how they live."

"Praise be," broke in OliviaDW, "for some fiction and a short book after Mary Queen of Scots!" Thank you, Olivia. I'm glad that somebody has noticed the careful thought and consideration that some of us are putting in. It's easy to get stale, you know, easy to take someone for granted. It was, she thought, "a clever book", but she "wouldn't recommend it". If, on the other hand, she "had to choose a short stories book for someone" she would "choose this one". Had she, she asked, just contradicted herself? Er, well, I don't want to be rude.

Zig, on the other hand, ("a female of the species from Venus not Mars") was a major fan. "Barnes shows beautifully how unique each person's journey is," she said. "Resignation, rage, regret, bitterness, humour, tragedy - all there. Should the young read it? Absolutely. Maybe they would realise that I'm still 16 inside, despite my outer appearance. Your mind doesn't change, just your body."

Eloquent, passionate and touching. If only I agreed! I'm with 2wabbits, I'm afraid - stalwart 2wabbits, who's been there from the start. "I did not care what happened to these people," he said succinctly. I couldn't have put it better.

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