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Elizabeth Finch

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Thank you Netgalley for this ARC of Elizabeth Finch. This is my first read by Julian Barnes and it won't be my last. Professor Elizabeth Finch teaches a college course on culture and completely intellectually enamours Neil, one her students. His preoccupation with Finch begins to take precedence over everything is his life, even after she passes away. Elizabeth Finch is such an interesting story and the writing is wonderful. I highly recommend.
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I will forever be a Julian Barnes fan--this book is part of that love. Barnes has such an incredible way of making people's thoughts and feelings expressed in such a way that makes you identify with them. The writing is so lyrical and beautiful.
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This literary fiction lover gets SO excited whenever anything Julian Barnes publishes as, to me, he is one of the very best. While this book felt a bit meandering at times, and felt like work at others, I'm so glad I pushed through. Barnes can deliver an ending like no other.
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Oh I hate to give bad reviews but WHAT WAS THIS??? scattered and all over the place, it never seemed to come together.  The writing just was not what I expect in a Barnes novel.
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I always look forward to a novel by Julian Barnes, however, this one did not deliver as usual. I found the book uneven and lacking cohesion. The first third introduces the reader to Elizabeth Finch,  a scholar and teacher of the narrator of the story, Neil, who quotes her at length and finds her remarkable as a teacher and person.. The middle section relates the life of Julian the Apostate, Elizabeth's topic of interest. The final third returns to Finch and her life that Neil explores when he inherits her library and papers and through Neil's discussions with her brother.

I enjoyed the first section of the book and struggled to read through the section on Julian.  I hoped that the last section would integrate the book into a whole but it never came for me.  Barnes is brilliant and an incredible thinker and of course, I'll read him again. However, this book was disappointing to me..
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When on occasion I finish reading a book and wonder, what did I just read?!  I ask myself, “Whose story is it?”  Was it Elizabeth’s, or Julian the Apostate’s, or Neil’s.  I still don’t know.  I hardly think it’s Neil’s since it’s not until the last page that we learn he is the father of three children.  

We never have a clear picture of the relationship between Neil and Elizabeth who was an instructor in an adult education program in which Neil had enrolled.  After graduation, Neil remains in contact with her with an occasional lunch, and after her passing, learns that she has left all her papers to him.  That’s the first of the three sections.  After reading her collected material, Neil writes with second section, a short biography of Julian the Apostate, from which I surmise that he was Elizabeth’s muse.  The third section follows her death.

I think Neil’s attraction to Elizabeth was her droll cynicism with observations like, “There are no wrong answers, even if all the answers are wrong” or “Normal doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.”  One of my favorites is, “Oh, I wasn’t in the least offended.  I was just pointing out how insults most often occur when an argument is being lost.  And you are trying to stick labels on me.  I’m not a steamer trunk.”

This odd book wasn’t exactly a compelling read, but on the other hand, I kept reading it because I wanted to know how it ended.  And even now, I’m not sure, but it did leave me wanting to know about Julian, philosopher and the Roman emperor from from 361-363, called the Apostate because he eschewed Christianity.  It’s a slow read but interesting.
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As a mature student Neil decides to take a class called Culture and Civilisation. The class is taught by Elizabeth Finch. Neil develops strong feelings for his professor. He admires her unorthodox teaching methods, her intellect, her confidence and her forthrightness. 
After the class is over Neil and Elizabeth begin to meet regularly for lunch. Though the relationship continues until her death it never develops beyond into anything romantic and stays on a platonic level.
After Elizabeth’s death Neil is informed that she has left him all her notes and papers.
After acquiring her notes Neil embarks on a study of Julian the Apostate. The paper he writes comprises Part 2 of the novel.
Although ELIZABETH FINCH is a short novel it took me a long time to read. I did see it through to the end but was tempted to abandon it on more than one occasion. The novel felt like a lesson in history and philosophy. I was hoping for a story about two people making a connection. 
While I can appreciate the writing talent and the amount of research that went into writing this book in the end I did not enjoy it.
Thank you to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group  and NetGalley for the opportunity to read an advanced digital edition of this book.
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I was given an advance reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  This was a very well written thought provoking book, although the writing style was not for me;
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A short, tough, compelling novel. Julian Barnes is truly a master of his craft and we're lucky to be alive to witness it.
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In teaching an adult education course in culture, the title character in Elizabeth Finch becomes the obsession (not in a creepy stalker way) of the narrator, who after the course continues a platonic, regular-lunch-date relationship with this erudite, amazing woman for several years. When she eventually dies, leaving her written work to him, he tries to figure out how best to honor her and his feelings for her.

I’ve quite enjoyed all the Barnes I’ve read before, but this one was not only difficult for me to push through, I had a hard time even buying into it. She spoke in near-perfectly, almost crystalline phrases of supposed brilliance that her students remember and can quote years later (and not just a few words but an entire passage). She doesn’t “smoke like anyone else.” She’s “preternaturally still.”  All her lectures were in her head. She spoke always in formal diction, “entirely grammatical.” And so it goes.   The problem is for all this proclamation of her almost godhood, we never really see it or feel it.  Her teaching is amazing, (Barnes is careful here at least to note only for some of her students) m, but it all seems contrived. One almost gets the sense Barnes himself is aware of the hole he dug himself with this incredible person because it doesn’t take long before he removes her as a living person from the story.

This solves one problem but leads into another.  After some semi-interesting exploration of the narrator, Neil, post-death (we meet her brother for instance, a far more believable and interesting character than Elizabeth Finch), we’re thrown into a lengthy essay on the Roman Emperor Julian, as one means Neil lands on to do his due duty to Finch, since she never got to write about this figure who was clearly so important to her.  But the essay itself (did I mention it was lengthy) bogs the book down. Neil’s prose is far from scintillating, and there’s none of the playfulness one sometimes sees in these texts-within-texts structures, such as Pale Fire. I’m pretty sure the idea of monotheism having a negative impact is far from original, and Neil just doesn’t have the prose or intellect or humor to do anything with an already well-trod concept. 

When that section (thankfully, finally) comes to a close, we’re on to part three, and here implausibility raises its head again as we’re told of how Elizabeth was publicly “shamed” for an academic speech she gave.  Barnes tries to wave away the unlikelihood of this (it was a slow news week, etc.) but the idea that a free lecture as part of a regular series by a minor academic became such a huge deal was difficult for me to swallow. Even more so labeling it “The Shaming.”  By this point, Neil has decided maybe he’ll write a biography of her, and so begins checking in with old classmates (there’s our recollection of her bon mots from years ago). But this too peters out.

There are some interesting themes in here:  the trustworthiness of memory, our fervent desire to make something of someone’s life, the idea of how much we truly know of someone, what is a “legacy”, etc.  But so many elements of this novel — character, structure, style, plot — flatten out the reading experience and distance the reader from any sense of connection to either the narrator or his subject that those potentially interesting themes go all but unnoticed. A disappointing work from a strong writer.
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Fastidious as ever. But there’s something excessively dry here, and the sense of an obsession - for the eponymous heroine - unsuccessfully shared. Not his most engaging work.
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I love Julian Barnes, so never regret the chance to read his work. Elizabeth Finch is a character study without much plot, the MC is an actor who regales his adoration for his professor, the eponymous Elizabeth Finch.. How does memory or history influence and inform our lives? How well can we ever know another person? These are some of the questions that arise throughout Elizabeth Finch. A short read, one I suspect many will find dry, but for me, Barnes’ prose is always a gift.
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DNF. I just could not get into this one. The writing was very academic and intellectual and made it hard for me to get into the story. This style may appeal more to a different reader. I listened to the audiobook which was well-narrated. Thank you to the publishers for providing this ebook/audiobook ARC.
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The 3 star rating is a compromise between the 4 star 1st part and the 2 star second part. The beginning caught my attention with its introduction to a most unique teacher named Elizabeth Finch (EF) and the adult students taking her class. Her opinions are highly quotable. Then Part 2 is a treatise on Julian the Apostolate and his attempt to turn the world away from Christianity and back toward pagan religions. It was difficult to stay engaged even though it tied in appropriately with the passions of EF.  This is not an action novel; more of an exploration of how much we can really know another person, even if we fell admiration and even love for them.

Thanks to NetGalley and Alfred A. Knopf Publishing for the ARC to read and review.
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I love Julian Barnes and his writing. The two of his novels I appreciate the most are: The Sense of an Ending and The Noise of Time. But I have read nothing like this before. Julian Barnes combines historical facts, theology, and philosophy in a fictional novel about Elizabeth Finch.

Elizabeth Finch, or EF, is a charismatic professor who teaches adult students. The narrator, Neil, is a student in her “Culture and Civilization” class. He finds her very intriguing, even “seductive, but not in any conventional way.” Even when he finishes his classes, they remain in contact and meet for lunch every three years in a span of twenty years.

I liked the first part of the novel the most. In the middle, we can read an essay about Julian The Apostate’s life, and this part was a bit off-putting for me. Here, my interest in this novel fell a bit. And the third part continues the narrator’s exploration of EF.

Elizabeth Finch is a novel about platonic love and admiration for one person. This novel generally deals with biography - EF’s, Julian The Apostate's, and partly also narrator’s. The theological part discussed in this novel is not particularly interesting to me. Although this novel is very good and imaginative, it is also complex. Overall, it is not a novel for general readers. I’m guessing that author never meant it to be this way. So a lower average rating wouldn’t surprise me at all. As I mentioned, this novel is not a lightweight read, and I struggled a bit with some parts while reading just an ebook.

I was lucky to receive ARC and ALC and partly listened to an audiobook and read an ebook together. Both formats are very good, but those who would find this novel overwhelming could find an audiobook a better option. Readers who want to reread and dissect the novel or its parts will find an ebook or physical copy best. Both formats together are also an excellent choice.

Thanks to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group for the ARC and this opportunity! This is a voluntary review and all opinions are my own.
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I did not enjoy this novel at all. So I "buried" my negative review in a composite blog-post with out recent reading that proved less than stellar.
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3. 5 Stars
I’ve been a fan of Julian Barnes since I read his A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters so I was anxious to read his latest offering.  I’m accustomed to Barnes’ blurring of lines between fiction and history, but I was disappointed with this book which is less a novel than a philosophical and theological discourse structured around an essay about a Roman emperor.  

The book is divided into three parts.  In the first section, we meet Neil, the narrator, who took an adult education course entitled “Culture and Civilization” taught by Elizabeth Finch (EF).  Neil describes her appearance, traits, mannerisms, beliefs, and method of teaching, and his history with her.  For Neil, she is an inspirational teacher who “’shook my mind around, made me constantly rethink, burst stars inside my head.’”  The second part is an essay Neil writes about the Roman Emperor known as Julian the Apostate whom Elizabeth Finch admired.  Neil outlines the various historical views of the man.  In the last section, Neil tries to piece together a biography of his admired mentor and comes to realize that not everyone was as enamored as he with the woman he thought could do no wrong.

The opening section caught my attention, especially because most of us can relate to having a charismatic educator who provoked and inspired.  Neil describes EF’s intelligence and wit, her reserve, and her calm stoicism.  He appreciates her collaborative teaching style in which “she directed us elegantly away from the obvious.”  Even after the class finishes, Neil maintains contact with her though she always remains somewhat remote.

The middle section is an essay Neil writes.  He inherits Elizabeth’s books and papers and, to honour his mentor, he researches Julian the Apostate.  In writing the essay, he seems to be trying to know EF by understanding why she admired him and lamented his early death.  EF believed that Julian’s death was a disaster for paganism and lead to the catastrophe of monotheism:  “the dominance and corruption of Christianity led to ‘the closing of the European mind’, the leaching of joy out of Europe, and the persecution and expulsion of Jews and Muslims.”  Certainly, the reader is left to consider what the world would be like if Christianity had remained a fringe belief system.  Unfortunately, I found this essay dull.

The final part returns to a focus on EF.  Neil considers writing a biography of EF and interviews others who knew her, only to discover that others saw or knew her differently; rather than a clearer impression of her, what emerges is a more complex and confusing image.  Neil is left wondering “how biographers do it:  make a life, a living life, a glowing life, a coherent life out of all that circumstantial, contradictory and missing evidence.”

Of course, this discovery suggests one of the main themes of the novel:  people are not really truly knowable.  Just as there are various historical views of Julian, there are different views of EF.  Just as Neil cannot completely understand Julian because of conflicting opinions, he is left confounded by what he learns about his beloved instructor from others who encountered her.  In the end, he has only a fragmentary, elusive portrait of EF.  

It is important to remember who the narrator is.  Middle-aged, Neil has two failed marriages and an undistinguished career as a job surfer.  One of his children dubs him “King of Unfinished Projects”, an apt title considering that he doesn’t even write the final essay of the class even though it could be on any subject related to the course.  He is blind to the fact that a fellow student is in love with him.  Certainly, he wears blinkers when it comes to EF.  Faced with evidence that is less than complimentary, Neil always defends EF even if his reasoning is obviously faulty.  How reliable is he in his interpretation of EF?  

It is the essay that comprises the middle section that negatively affected my enjoyment of the book.  It is obvious that Neil is not an historian; his essay reads more like an article one could find on Wikipedia.  It is repetitive and tedious.  I wanted more about the eponymous character.  The themes that people cannot be fully understood or that memory has limitations or that “’Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us’” are not developed in an exceptionally original way.   

A novel for me need not be full of drama, but this one, unlike other of Barnes’ novels, did not resonate with me.

See my reviews of other Julian Barnes novels:
The Sense of an Ending:  https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.com/2015/12/book-advent-calendar-day-two-sense-of.html
The Only Story: https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.com/2018/04/review-of-only-story-by-julian-barnes.html
The Noise of Time:   https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.com/2016/04/review-of-noise-of-time-by-julian-barnes.html

Note:  I received a digital galley from the publisher via NetGalley.
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Published by Knopf on August 16, 2022

Elizabeth Finch could be read as a celebration of intellect. That, at least, is my less than intellectual impression of the novel. The central theme of the unconventional narrative concerns ideas — following an idea, exploring it, evaluating it, and drawing conclusions about the idea’s merit. The novel takes a close look at several ideas that relate to the meaning of life. To some extent, the novel might also be seen as the celebration of teachers, or of the rare teacher who opens the minds of students rather than stuffing minds full of facts that might or might not be accurate.

The story is told in three parts. Elizabeth Finch is the glue that binds them. When the story opens, EF is teaching a course in Culture and Civilization at the University of London. The course touches upon monoculture and foundation myths, the deception of histories that cultures embrace as “comforting bedtime stories.” EF deals in “truths not from previous generations but from previous eras, truths she kept alive but which others had abandoned.” Students like Neil and Anna find their lives transformed.

EF challenges her students, poses questions and critiques answers without moral judgment or derision. EF does not teach in the traditional way — dates, names, facts, “all leading to broader ideas.” She begins with the broad ideas, and then illustrates them with dates, names, and facts. Students who are unsettled by ideas, who are unwilling to rethink their own ideas, who just want to memorize facts and dates so they can pass exams, drop her class or become confrontational. One of the confrontational students, Geoff, provides a different perspective on EF at the novel’s end. Which view of EF is correct (or maybe both or neither) is left for the reader to decide.

In any event, we learn in part three that EF published a piece after she retired that caused the tabloids to paint her as a heretic, anti-Christian, and a disciple of Hitler. Geoff may have been the instigator of that attack. EF was reclusive before the tabloids attacked her and stopped publishing after, but she never published much anyway, apparently preferring solitude and a life of the mind to sharing with others. As with so much else in her life, it may be that she just didn’t want to be bothered.

EF is an enigma. She is sympathetic but distant. She answers questions with candor and concealment. She speaks of love as bringing clarity and delirium. She resists having labels stuck to her because she is “not a steamer trunk.” Apart from these contradictions, we learn very little about EF because the novel’s narrator, Neil, never uncovers her secrets.

If we can be sure about anything, it is that EF is is a stoic who believes that freedom lies in controlling what you can and accepting the things you cannot. We might be able to control what we think or feel but we cannot control how others will behave in a relationship. EF once cautioned her students that passion, like reason, “may mislead us furiously.” Neil once glimpsed a man who might have been important to EF, his best clue that passion might have influenced her life, but he struggles to learn more.

Neil views EF as a romantic pessimist and then as a romantic stoic. EF tells Anna that love is the only thing that matters. Yet EF believes that love, for a woman, has always meant “possession followed by sacrifice” — being possessed and then being sacrificed. She knows that people will look at her and say she never married, “a reductive way to describe and contain a life.” EF is solitary but not lonely because solitude is strength and loneliness is weakness. EF abhors weakness and will never be possessed.

After Neil is no longer EF’s student, he begins meeting her for lunch two or three times a year. They continue their meetings for twenty years, through two of Neil’s failed marriages. The lunches always begin with EF asking, “What have you got for me?” They spend the lunch discussing ideas, often ideas that EF touched upon in her class. EF never talks about herself because, to EF, ideas are the things that matter. Everything else, including the food served at lunch, is likely to be disappointing.

The novel’s second part is an essay. Neil writes it in response to an implied challenge, a way to prove something to EF despite his knowledge that EF will never read it. The essay is astonishing. It explores Julian the Apostate, “the last pagan emperor of Rome,” whose death made possible the rise of Christianity (or at least that’s how Christian history tells the story). The essay recounts the deeds and words of Julian, imagines how history might have unfolded if he had lived (perhaps the Age of Reason would not have been delayed by fourteen centuries), and examines how thinkers and poets through the ages viewed Julian, including Montaigne, Milton, Voltaire, Gibbon, Goethe, Byron, and Swinburne. This is heavy thought, but the essay is lively, never stuffy or dense. This is how history and philosophy should be written, with all the rigor but none of the drudgery of scholarship.

The third part reconnects Neil and Anna (and Geoff by email) as Neil continues his quest to understand EF. EF’s brother, who could not be less like her, contributes his limited perspective. Neil and Anna both admire (and even love) EF but in different ways, while Goeff thinks she’s a bit of a fraud. Yet as EF made clear, none of us can really understand another person. Our best hope is to understand something of ourselves, a hope that comes from taking control of those things that we can control about our lives and stoically accepting the things we cannot. That’s probably the novel’s great lesson (giving intellectual force to the AA serenity prayer), although the book overflows with lessons.

I have never read a novel like Elizabeth Finch, a novel that is largely devoted to an essay about history, religion, and philosophy, a novel in which thought supplants action or characterization. We learn only superficial details about Neil and his failed marriages because Neil isn’t important. We learn almost nothing about Anna. None of the characters, not even EF, are as important as ideas. Yet the essay is so brilliant and the unknowable character of EF so fascinating that the novel’s unconventional nature, its refusal to give the reader a plot or detailed characterizations, becomes a virtue. This isn’t a novel for every reader, but it may be a novel that would reward every reader who gives it a fair chance.

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This is a superficial study of Julian the Apostate by way of the titular Elizabeth Finch. This narrative is thinly veiled as that of a clueless man who meets a woman he seems to be more intelligent, more mysterious and more interesting than himself or any woman he has met previously or since and assigns her the unattainable role of goddess/muse without ever really understanding her or himself. Despite the repeated opportunities he wastes the chance to really know her until, after her death, he realizes that all he had of her were her teachings, her ramblings and her notes. An indulgent “novel” of which I can only praise the length.
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Elizabeth Finch, from Julian Barnes examines the relationship between the narrator, Neil, and his one-time professor. The novel explores the problems of memory and biography and asks how well can we ever know a person–especially a multi-faceted, private person such as Elizabeth Finch.

Elizabeth Finch teaches an adult education course, “Culture and Civilisation.” The students range in age from 20-40, and there’s a great deal of speculation about Elizabeth, a curious woman of contrasts, and her private life. Neil notes that it easy “to stray into fantasy.” As a lecturer/professor, Elizabeth Finch, or EF as Neil later refers to her, is challenging, yet she provides a reading list which is “optional” and notes “I may well not be the best teacher, in the sense of the one most suited to your temperament and cast of mind.” That last sentence, which seems so casually spoken on the first day, turns out to have great significance.


She appeared to have settled on her look some time ago. It could still be called stylish: another decade, and it might be antique or, perhaps vintage. In summer, a box-pleated skirt, usually navy; tweed in winter. Sometimes she adopted a tartan or kiltish look with a big safety pin (no doubt there’s a special Scottish word for it). Obvious money was spent on blouses, in silk or fine cotton, often striped, and in no way translucent. Occasionally a brooch, always small and, as they say, discreet, yet somehow refulgent. She rarely wore earrings (were her lobes even pierced? now there’s a question). On her left little finger, a silver ring which we took to be inherited, rather than bought or given. Her hair was a kind of sandy grey, shapely and of unvarying length. I imagined a regular fortnightly appointment. Well, she believed in artifice, as she told us more than once. And artifice, as she also observed, was not incompatible with truth.

The novel can be sliced into 3 sections: the introduction (and departure) of Elizabeth Finch, the middle section which is Neil’s long-delayed student essay on Julian the Apostate, and the final section which covers the end of Elizabeth’s career and Neil’s conclusions about his former professor.

I loved the first part of the book as Neil charts his relationship with Elizabeth Finch. Sometimes it’s the hard to define relationships that are the most interesting. EF rather uncannily reminded me of a professor who later became a friend for several decades, and so when I read that Neil intended to become EF’s biographer, I was fascinated. Unfortunately, when Neil delivers his student essay as some sort of post-death tribute to Elizabeth Finch, this entire middle section threw me in the Slough of Despond. I probably wouldn’t have minded reading about Julian the Apostate if I’d sought a book on the subject, but as is, the plot seems hijacked…no … abandoned. In the final section, Neil returns to the subject of EF and the novel revives as he discovers that he was not the only student who maintained a relationship with this very private, exacting person. Meanwhile, Neil tries to excavate details of EF’s private life and finally talks to a former student who has an entirely different opinion of the professor. Ultimately, we are left with more questions than answers, and the mystery of a professor who became one of the most significant people in Neil’s life, while another student remembers her as rather ordinary. What does that say about our perceptions, our biases, our memories?

Review copy.
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