Cover Image: Elizabeth Finch

Elizabeth Finch

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Member Reviews

Julian Barnes doesn't disappoint. This is a beautifully written story about a professor of culture and civilization and the effect she has on one student, the narrator. After she dies , he sets out on a journey to understand her and how to honor her. The middle section is about Julian the Apostate, a Roman emperor and a philosopher. The author  ultimately leads the reader to a satisfactory conclusion.
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I always love Julian Barnes, and this novel didn’t disappoint. Elizabeth Finch is a brief philosophical novel. It doesn’t follow the usual story structure, but rather explores the themes of critical thought, and opening one’s mind through education and re-examined history. We meet Elizabeth Finch through the memory of our narrator, Neil. He is looking back on his friendship with EF, the college professor who inspired him to think differently, to strive for something more intellectually. Through the book, we the reader, also experience a similar feeling… a yearning to re-examine our history, our culture, ourselves. And, as always, Julian Barnes’ command of the English language is beautiful, precise, and masterful.
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This is the second book I’ve read by Julian Barnes. The first - Sense of an Ending - was more of a story and Elizabeth Finch is more of a treatise. I appreciated this book, but felt inept at times as it’s a challenging read with facets that I’m just not educated enough to grasp. 

Part One, which introduces a beloved, albeit guarded, professor (Elizabeth Finch) in a program for adult students is easy to read and sets a story. The narrator is Neil, a twice divorced student and friend of Professor Finch’s who loves her in a platonic way. He relates his adulation and also his call to memorialize her.  

Part Two diverges into a detailed discussion of Julian the Apostate and Neil’s immersion into a reading list Finch had recommended but Neil had failed to read while he was her student. This was a bumpier section and required a bit of patience as it got somewhat tedious. Despite having an interest in early Christianity, I found myself skimming some long paragraphs about Julian. But, there is the sense this is deliberate as parallels are drawn between Julian and Elizabeth and Neil and what we can or ought to know about someone. 

Finally, Part Three arrives just in time and returns to  Neil’s quest to understand his deceased teacher, himself and his failings, and to decide how to honor Elizabeth Finch his mentor and friend. Once again, I felt happily engaged with the writing and had an appreciation for the many layers of this book. I particularly enjoyed the self-examination of Neil’s own story. 

Certainly this is a book that students of philosophy will appreciate. For we mere mortals, it’s a challenging read, but with some rewards for those who persist. 

Thank you to NetGalley for an ARC of this book.
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I liked Elizabeth Finch, the woman at the centre of this story, and at the obsessed centre of Neil, the narrator’s rather creepy life. But that was about all I liked. Even Elizabeth was hard to like at times, simply because of her continued ‘lunches’ with her old student. Unsatisfying not to ever find out anything real about Elizabeth; it made her seem a highly unlikely character. Neil, unfortunately, was believable, and someone best avoided at all costs. Not only was his obsession about Elizabeth Finch very very creepy (yet I am not sure the author intended him to be creepy) his endless pages of boring and seemingly entirely unrelated musings and research on Julian the Apostate and other irrelevant things made this novel seem pretentious. If this was written by a not-famous writer, most editors would stab their thick red pen through all of that and shout ‘authorial voice, get rid of it!” Of course, as all his prizes tell us, Julian Barnes is one of UK’s most glittering literary novelists, but I would be surprised if many readers truly and honestly find him interesting, heart-warming or anything else most of us want from even a literary novel. (indeed, especially a literary novel). Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for the advance digital review copy.
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Exceptionally well-written, as all of Barnes’ work is, but it’s not a novel. It’s a philosophical text based on a religious biography written within a flimsy framework of a novel. The titular character is something of myth and not like a fully fleshed-out person at all.
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My really only takeaway from this novel, unfortunately, was a man's obsession with his professor. It was very slow at parts, and I just did not connect with any of the characters.
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It could be said that Julian Barnes is among the last greats. This book is yet another journey into this author’s keen sense of observation, with character and frailty on the page. Highly recommended reading.
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Thanks to Netgalley and Knopf for the ebook. Neil, an actor who is looking for a new profession, takes a class taught by Elizabeth Finch, a charismatic teacher who will challenge Neil to look at the world in new ways. Thus begins a lifetime fascination and friendship. Neil is startled that after her death Elizabeth has left him all her notebooks. Neil goes through them all and believes that she has given him all the material he’ll need to write a book about Julian the Apostate, which he does, in a very slim volume, but he doesn’t try and publish the finished work. Instead he tries to find out more about who Elizabeth Finch really was.
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“And remember, whenever you see a character in a novel, let alone a biography or history book, reduced and neatened into three adjectives, always distrust that description.”

A word of caution:
This book is meant for the intellectually superior crowd of which I do not find myself a part of and thus, before I share my thoughts about it, I have to admit that my literary and intellectual limitations have hindered my experience of this piece so do not be fooled by my review.

Elizabeth Finch is written in three distinct parts: first part- Neil, a thirty something, unsuccessful actor, recovering from his first divorce, attends classes on ‘Culture and Civilization’ taught by a stoic, alarmingly confident, and fascinating, Elizabeth Finch, with whom he falls in an intellectual kind of love and continues to remain in contact with her until her death two decades later. He inherits all of Finch’s notes and paperwork as per her will and begins to re-obsess over her all over again, deciphering her notes and ramblings, and decides to do a biographical piece on her.

Second part: an academic (felt so to me) essay on Julian the Apostate, the last non-Christian Roman emperor who rejected Christianity. Elizabeth Finch, initially, through her lectures and later on, through her notes, seemed to be fixated on Julian and patronised him for his eccentric philosophical teachings. Neil pens down this essay as a tribute to Finch.

Third part: Neil communicates with his ex-classmates to compile their personal accounts of Finch and realises that not everyone found EF as charismatic as he did, and is finally able to conclude that he can never fully understand or know EF.

I enjoyed the complex layering of Elizabeth Finch, and in a way of Neil as well - Liz’s stoicism and mysteriousness, Neil’s obsession with Liz and insecurities about his own life, and the relationship they shared - unfulfilled yet satisfying. The writing is typically Barnes with his standard style of reminiscing and self musings. I would never be able to completely enjoy Barnes’ writing because, of course, I’m too naive and mediocre to comprehend the true meaning of his words. My experience of this book was also marred by the long drawn sketches of Julian the Apostate- I felt annoyed since I didn’t willingly sign up for the study of Christianity vs paganism and was terribly bored. There is also a lot of redundant content added onto my boredom.

Overall, good writing, although I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone without a degree or interest in religion (Christianity to be precise) unless you’re a fan of Barnes, in which case, you should try it for yourself.

Thanks to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for my honest review. 
Publication Date: August 16th, 2022.
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Julian Barnes explores the boundaries and nuances of personal relationships in this exquisite novel about Elizabeth Finch, a college professor who  challenges her adult students to perceive the world from new perspectives. Barnes structures the novel in three sections. The first introduces us to Finch, the narrator Neil, his classmates, and the course content that centers around culture, religion, and history. The middle section shifts to a non-fiction account of one of Elizabeth Finch's scholastic interests - Julian the Apostate. Neil writes the essay in an attempt to connect with his former instructor, and the historical facts and themes he explores resonate with the fictional sections of the book in profound ways. The final part of the novel returns to Neil as he reconciles his memories of Elizabeth Finch with those of others she knew (i.e., her brother and former students). Writing about Julian the Apostate, Neil points out numerous instances in which the realities of the past conflict with our perceptions of what took place. In much the same way, Neil must face the question of whether, despite his close friendship with Elizabeth Finch, he ever really knew her at all. Beautifully written by a master of his craft.
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I don’t benefit from a Classical education, but as Julian Barnes hints on the first page of Elizabeth Finch that this is to be a Socratic dialogue, I am going to broadly interpret the techniques of that teaching method in order to give a sense of what the author appears to be doing here. Divided into three very different sections, I don’t know if this hangs together perfectly as a novel, but as an example of a Socratic dialogue, in which Barnes plays the role of the grey-bearded philosopher — discussing, correcting, exemplifying — it seems a genius device with which he can share what a lifetime has taught him about memory, history, culture, art, and literature. It all gets a little meta in the end — and if I am, indeed, correct in what Barnes is trying to convey, I don’t know if I was completely swayed by his argument — but this was a pleasure to read and to ruminate upon. Four stars reflect admiration more than enjoyment, but this is a book I would recommend to anyone.
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