Customer Reviews: Before She Met Me (Vintage International)
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on April 19, 2001
Before She Met Me is a book filled with the great British humor of Julian Barnes. It has its flaws, to be sure, but they are minor ones. One of the characters is truly reprehensible, but his appearances are so few and far between that I think his horrid behavior can easily be overlooked.
What bothered me more, with this book, were the female characters. One of them seems quite true to life but the other one did not. She seemed wooden, a cardboard cutout. Barnes is a terrific writer, but in my opinion, he has yet to create a believable, good, female character.
The writing in this book is really first rate British humor (I expect it may be too British for some). It is an escapist book but I don't think that should lessen its importance. After all, don't we all need to escape now and then?
If you want to laugh and have a little fun, if you want to forget your troubles for awhile, then try Before She Met Me. It might do you a world of good. It did me.
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on February 27, 2013
Nabokov will always be my master of male obsession, however Barnes (thankfully not a pedophile) comes in a close second.

Before She met Me isn't packed with glimmering prose, it doesn't leap to life or screech towards a zestful or resounding conclusion, but nevertheless I enjoyed it immensely. Graham Hendrick, Barnes' protagonist, is a middle aged bespectacled historian whose obsession with his second wife's past relationships starts to erode his pragmatism until he's combing through her foreign coins in order to identify the Peso or Lira she acquired when on holiday with the specific ex-boyfriend.

The infatuation/fixation isn't subtle -- Barnes slops on derangement like Jackson Pollock tossed paint...

Sometimes when he looks at her, he is envious of what she touches. Sometimes he consumes the leftover food (even the "discolored vegetables and sausage gristle") off her plate so he can experience what she might have ingested. Sometimes he wishes he could wear a crumpled wad of toilet paper she accidentally dropped on the floor as a decorative flower in his buttonhole. He's often paranoid, increasingly delusional and wildly jealous. All this would become slightly too Fatal Attraction if Barnes didn't have the good sense to unleash his acerbic and delightfully fiendish wit. Generous helpings of it too. Before She Met Me is loaded with psychological intrigue, crisp, sparkling dialogue and wily Machiavellian contortions. Barnes can write men. I've read The Lemon Table and although I didn't enjoy it as much as Before She Met Me, I did notice the author had an uncanny ability to shove you into the male psyche until you literally felt in need of a shave and a subscription to Maxim. Graham is acutely observed from every angle, his mind plundered and his mannerisms painstakingly scrutinized.

The only qualm I really have is that Barnes's women aren't 100% plausible here. At times they come across as parodies of women. They pout and admonish, they're coquettish and stoic and yet they're also defiant and explosive with what appears to be chronic PMS. This book, however, is not really about the women so their lack of realism didn't detract from my enjoyment.

Before She Met Me combines seemingly indigestible ingredients: 1/4th cup gooey goofball humor, 1 pint gut-wrenching heartache, 2 tablespoons homogenized horror...and yet the end result is surprisingly tasty....almost lip smacking good.
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on April 29, 2005
The topic of exploring the sexual jealousy of a man regarding his wife's past lovers is, in my opinion, a largely unexplored aspect of life in litereature. For those who found it unrealistic, let your imagination run wild the next time your lover discusses his or her past relationships.

Unfortunately, the way it was encountered here was so over the top that it became so absurd that it seemed to parody itself. Some people may have found this funny, but I would argue that it undermined the value of undertaking reading the book; it would be hard to say that this is 'humor writing' or to even call this a funny book.

That said, I agree with many people here in regards to the characters. All of them, seemed to be not only unlikeable but also unconvincing. They have no comlexity to them what-so-ever. They are all one sided caricatures: the shrewish wife, the crude writer, the subservient and loyal wife, and the obsessed man. All their characterization could be summed up with one adjective, and that's obviously not good.

And the end, well, we've all seen it. It was an easy way out. The jealousy remained. Alternatives were never truly explored (unless you include 'wanking'). And so the most hackneyed ending in the history of literature was tagged on at the end of the book. The ____ of the main character.

If you are to read Barnes, please read Flaubert's Parrot or The History of the World... They are both wonderful and it would sad if reading this would stop anyone from reading them.
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on March 31, 2012

This is a sort of relationship / family drama. The main protagonist, Graham, has this quirky fixation on his wife's past love life. His irrational thoughts cause him a great deal of pain and anxiety. While he is a well-educated, intelligent man, Graham is unable to reason himself out of his condition. His thoughts follow a circular, broken record pattern, rather than a linear one that eventually reaches to a conclusion.

Clearly, this book describes the symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Viewed in that light, the book is fairly accurate and well-written but not particularly funny.

The author has Graham kill his wife and himself at the end of the book - too bad, because a bit of Prozac might have saved them both. Compliments to the author for having thoroughly researched OCD. However, the exploitation of a mental health problem for plot creation is a bit unfair - at least, it could have been made clear that the book protagonist is OCD.
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on July 26, 2010
A book with a great title and intriguing concept that does not live up to its promise.

'Before She Met Me' is fashioned around an interesting situation regarding the jealous obsessions that a certain type of man can fall into regarding his faithful partner's previous sexual relationships, real or imagined. This story could have been an absorbing study into jealousy and relationships, but when it's taken as a whole the plot arc and characters are unconvincing. The opening chapter was clever and drew me in, but in the end I felt flat and unengaged as a reader. It just feels lazy, like Julian Barnes had a good idea for a book but couldn't be bothered with doing the work or background prep.

The cast of characters are caricatures devoid of complexity. The protagonist Graham is completely unlikeable and his best friend, Jack, unbelievable -- an excessive and indulgent piece of characterisation. The only character I had some fellow feeling for was Ann, Graham's wife. The other two women characters are clumsy plot devices with no substance: Graham's ex-wife Barbara is just a distant cliché and Jack's wife a cardboard cut-out place holder. Although I felt a mild intellectual and emotive interest in Graham's predicament it was difficult to work up any sympathy for this boring, uninspiring, obsessive cartoon of a man. If anything, I felt increasing annoyance and intolerance for his increasingly stupid and selfish behaviour, which becomes increasingly less plausible and more disproportionate to its causes. Barnes, for a professional novelist, does not seem to have a good grasp of emotive and motivating factors in this particular novel, as Graham's 'deterioration' is presented in an unedifying and dubious succession of incidents. Worse, there is no rewarding culmination for those readers who persevere to the end. Instead we are faced with a resolution that is unsatisfying and lazy.

Overall, as other reviewers have noted, the story has trouble with maintaining plausibility -- it almost reads more like a writing exercise than a novel. The main characters are bores, and the attempts by the author at incorporating some psychology are clumsy and amateurish. I did quite enjoy one later chapter, as a bounded situation sketch, where Graham and Ann host a party at their house. But unfortunately much of the novel was clinical and distant, which left me cold and empty.

This was my first book by Barnes and I had been looking forward to it. But upon reading I found the prose and the story indulgent, unengaging and tiresome. It took a struggle to finish even though it is quite short. Part of me feels that the major problems faced by this book are that it hasn't aged well and is just dated. But another part feels that maybe this book has always faced this problem. It's not that old, but the use of language and the way the characters relate seem older than it's publication date of 1982. It must have felt even a little out of touch to contemporary readers back then. It's more like Graham is a forty year old in 1952 England rather than a 40 year old in 1982 England.

Unfortunately, although most other reviewers on this page have noted that 'Before She Met Me' is an exception and not a good representation of Barnes' otherwise good work, I won't be rushing out to read another.
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Julian Barnes must be one of the most various of English novelists writing today. FLAUBERT'S PARROT is virtually a piece of literary history in novel form. A HISTORY OF THE WORLD IN 10½ CHAPTERS is just that, a very peculiar history starting with Eden and moving on from there. ARTHUR AND GEORGE is a linked biography of two contrasting but real figures from the late 19th century. Each of these uses a totally different narrative form, and none is exactly what you would call a normal novel. By contrast, BEFORE SHE MET ME is closer to conventional fiction in containing made-up characters and having a beginning, middle, and end. It is a kind of Bluebeard story in reverse, in which it is now the husband who becomes jealous of his wife's former lovers.

Graham Hendrick is an academic historian, used to uncovering the relics of the past and teasing out their meaning; in this case, however, his training leads him only into trouble. While caught in a stale marriage, he falls for a younger woman called Ann, and divorces his wife in order to marry her. Ann is open and devoted, and Graham discovers new life under her influence. But he has had little experience other than with his first wife, and finds it hard to accept that Ann has had a much more varied romantic life (and a perfectly usual one for 1980; in exploring the attitude of different generations towards sex, the book is in some ways an extension of Ian McEwan's ON CHESIL BEACH, twenty years on). For a short time, Ann had a career as a B-movie actress; Graham happens to catch one of her films, and begins to wonder about her liaisons, onscreen and off. As he persists with his misapplication of the historical method to Ann's past, Graham's interest becomes an obsession, and eventually spills over into speculation about her present, leading to the dramatic climax with which the book ends.

I cannot say that the ending feels entirely right, but this is a book where the journey is much more important than the destination. Along the way, Barnes offers marvelous insights about divorce and the dynamics of marriage, in and out of the bedroom. There is a lot of genuine love, even among the craziness. Parts of the book are hilariously funny, especially the characterization of Graham's friend Jack Lupton, a philandering novelist of the back-to-the-soil school, who has developed farting to a fine art. And there are quite brilliant passages such as this, where Graham is looking through Ann's bookshelves and comes upon some maps: "All of Ann's maps had been put away as if they'd been interrupted in mid-use. This made them more personal and, Graham suddenly realized, more threatening to him. A map, for him, once folded back into its proper order, lost its user's stamp: it could be lent or given away without touching on any feelings of attachment. Looking at Ann's awkwardly squashed maps with their overruled creases was like seeing a clock stopped at a certain significant time; or -- and worse, he realized -- like reading her diary. Some of the maps (Paris, Salzburg, Madrid) had biro marks on them: crosses, circles, street numbers. The sudden particularities of a life previous to him." This is at once an historian's insight and a novelist's. In another situation, such discoveries would add to the attraction of the other -- but under the irrational but relentless grip of jealousy, they lead only to disaster.
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on December 12, 2003
A novel about sexual jealousy and manners that made me wonder whether the world was really a different place 20 years ago.
In one of Isaac Asimov's novels (The Robots of Dawn), the main character visits a planet where everyone, subject to conventions of politeness, is available sexually to others on a non-exclusive basis, and the one socially unacceptable emotion is jealousy. Our world isn't like that, but equally it seems hard to imagine today the level of jealousy, arising from sexual escapades before Graham had even met his wife, that could unhinge him to the extent portrayed in this story.
And would anyone now believe in a character, of apparently normal sexual appetites, who gives up solo activity at 18 and doesn't engage in it again for 22 years?
Julian Barnes' writing style is such a delight. The light wit, the vivid dream sequences, the evocative and totally believable way he describes the everyday highs and lows of married life, the precise descriptions of emotions, the elegance of his style and vocabulary ... all these make the book a pleasure to read.
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HALL OF FAMEon December 11, 2000
I am well into reading a sixth book by Mr. Julian Barnes, so while I may have yet to complete his entire body of work, I do think I can say this is not only a dark exception to his writing, but contains topics that are deviant. Individual conduct may be more appropriate than topic, as the most bazaar behavior is reserved for one player. Others in this book are eccentric bordering on the repugnant, but no literary rules states we must like who we read about.
For example, if a writer/amateur psychologist, who revels in his flatulence can be endured, you will get through the book. There is no gray area with this particular character, no compromise, be amused, or be repelled, those are the options. There are many other minor players that all are people you would not miss meeting, however the main character will test your thresholds for the bizarre.
A man marries for the second time. He brings to this union his own history of relationships with women from earliest unfulfilled fantasies, to complete biblical knowledge of his female counterparts. Like her Husband, the Wife too brings her own life experiences both real, and the fictional, as her career as a "minor actress" occasioned the illusion of intimacy on the screen of silver.
As his curiosity of seeing an old film, becomes an obsession of repeated viewings, and videotaped collecting, the Husband departs reality, pauses for bizarre ritual, and finally plummets with finality.
The effort here is tolerating the sideshow freakish behavior that is repellent. If the reader can do so, the reward of this writer's skill is the only satisfaction you will have. This is certainly not a book I would recommend as an introduction to this man's work. If this were the first of his I came upon, it surely would have been the last. However once read in the context of his body of work, while divergent, annoying, and filled with players who may only gain your contempt, the effort is worth it.
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on September 12, 2015
the story of a troubled middle-aged man questioning his realtionships then and now, but unable to cope with the answers, he acts like an adolescent not ready for life - yet. barnes' characters, especially men, are usually immature, incapable and weak. they may be men of title but this is as good as it gets. women are equally troubled but they are not cornered by the author as men are. that is to say, this novel is another typical and charming Barnes.
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on July 1, 2014
This is one of Barnes' "laziest books"! I fear he may not enjoy a "fine late flowering" if this is a taste of things to come! The suspense is still there, admittedly, but I have always felt this author to be at his very best as a short-story writer. Somehow none of the characters sound convincing here; OK so there is a lot of bickering - but then, it was so much more touchingly done by the protagonists in "Interference" (Cross Channel)! As for the hyberbolic wanking, I'm not sure that it was not intended to make us laugh.
The overall effect is that of a caricature - unless that be precisely the aim; man lost in a society of over-consumption of films, cigars, health-gurus and suchlike?
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