cover image Elizabeth Finch

Elizabeth Finch

Julian Barnes. Knopf, $26 (192p) ISBN 978-0-593-53543-1

Booker Prize winner Barnes (The Sense of an Ending) delivers a tepid, talky meditation on the impact of a professor on a middle-aged man. Former actor Neil, wounded by the end of his marriage, signs up for an adult education course titled “Culture and Civilisation” taught by Elizabeth Finch, an author of two scholarly works. He’s immediately entranced by Finch’s calm, rigorous presence as she lectures on St. Ursula, the abolition of slavery, and Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of Rome, causing Neil to feel his “brain change gear.” After the course ends, Neil meets Finch for lunch two or three times a year for two decades, though she never eases her reserved demeanor. One day, Neil learns Elizabeth has died and is astonished that she has left him her books and papers. Scouring her bequest for clues on the private life she kept hidden, he honors her frequent references to Julian the Apostate by writing the essay on the emperor that forms the novel’s central section, which, via Barnes, is reliably intelligent and perceptive. Barely characterized beyond his preoccupation with Finch’s ideas, which Barnes shares in lengthy quotations from her lectures and notebooks, Neil, though, is less character than mouthpiece. “You can see, I hope, why I adored her,” he effuses, but Finch’s appeal remains as mysterious as she does. Even devoted fans may be disappointed. (Aug.)