The story begins on a windy spring day in the Chilterns when the calm, organized life of Joe Rose is shattered by a ballooning accident. The afternoon, Joe reflects, could have ended in mere tragedy, but for his brief meeting with Jed Parry. Unknown to Rose, something passes between them - something that gives birth in Parry to an obsession so powerful that it will test to the limits Rose's beloved scientific rationalism, threaten the love of his wife, Clarissa, and drive him to take desperate measures to stay alive.
I really do love McEwan's writing. He has an incredibly keen grasp of human psychology, and especially the unreliability of human perception and memory, and at his best he makes most other fiction feel like a gross oversimplification of human complexity. Which, let's face it, it is. I'm also impressed by how scientifically literate his writing is. The main character here is a science writer with a PhD in physics, and McEwan gets him, and his scientific subject matter, absolutely right. This is a guy who thinks in well-chosen scientific metaphors, who often stops to analyze his experiences in terms of anthropology, neurology, or evolutionary psychology. He thinks, in other words, exactly the way I do, and I can't tell you how refreshing it is to see that done in a believable and nuanced way (as opposed to being presented with yet another clueless version of what most people think a smart, science-y guy is supposed to be like). It's particularly unexpected and wonderful in this kind of mainstream literary writing, where I don't often encounter characters I can identify that fully with, in all their good and bad points.
My one complaint about this book, and the reason it didn't rate another extra half-star from me, is that the climax is a little unsatisfying, somehow, a little... anti-climactic. Although the book does at least end on a rather effective note. (A tip for the reader: don't skip the appendices. They are very much part of the story.)
I should also add that I was a little trepidatious about the subject matter, because this kind of story could have very easily come across as unpleasantly homophobic, whether consciously or unconsciously, but thankfully it never does.
The novel opens with a scene made for the big screen: a group of strangers discover an out-of-control hot air balloon and struggle to bring its passengers to safety. When one of the rescuers dies in the attempt, Joe Rose, our hero and narrator, shares a glance with young Jed Parry, another of the rescuers, seeking understanding and compassion. But when Jed mistakes that for a look of love, both Joe and Jed enter into a discomfiting obsession that threatens to spiral out of control.
Where the novel succeeds is in its balance of suspense and uncertainty. Joe quickly ascertains that Jed suffers from erotomania and tries to use the psychological disorder to insulate him from Jed's unusual advances. But McEwan is exceptionally careful throughout, casting only faint glimmers on Jed's behavior and allowing Joe's mind to create the obsession. It forces the reader to question the narrator's veracity, to determine if it's all in Jed's head or if it's really all in Joe's. The balance makes for a page-turning and very exciting read.
Despite McEwan's penchant for set pieces, they work exceptionally well in this novel. Especially as the novel spirals towards its climax, the sets--notably, the scene in which Joe attempts to purchase a gun, and the final climactic confrontation--are used to great effect. Sure, they approach predictable, but that gives the novel a sense of inevitability, not tiredness. Even the appendices that close the work manage to leave the reader with a haunting sense of incompleteness, despite their decidedly clinical tone.
I have always been somewhat uncertain about my feelings about Ian McEwan as a novelist, but Enduring Love is very much a successful work. Rather than try to bog the reader down with details, he takes two fascinating characters and explores the intricacies of their psyches in ways that are familiar but unpredictable. You may see the ending coming from a mile away, but the trip there is about as tense as it gets, and well worth the read.
Though I felt like the book dragged in some places, I found it to be a satisfying read overall. McEwan brilliantly describes Jed's obsession with Joe following the accident, and I felt that the ultimate confrontation between Joe and Jed answered a lot of questions that lingered throughout the novel.
The way Enduring Love is written makes each ensuing chapter increasingly frightful. Occasionally there are some unnecessary tangents, but overall the pace of the book is quick. I was a little disappointed in the ending. I found it sort of weak and perhaps a bit too clinical as well. Nevertheless, the story is interesting enough to make this read worthwhile.
A tense and dramatic tale that keeps one guessing throughout; is Joe’s perception of events to be believed, or is all in his mind, or even his own fabrication? The first chapter is especially gripping, and the element of surprise is maintained as the story unfolds.
Unlike most novels whose story rises to a culmination, McEwan uses the big event as an opener. And what an unforgettable opener! The account that follows is a disturbing story of obsession: sinister, ominous, but utterly compelling.
Joe is a frustrated scientist, now reduced to writing popular science journal articles. His thought processes, of rationalizing in the scientific way is eluding him, and the occupational hazard of "popularizing" has taken over. Is Joe an unreliable narrator? There is so much that can be read into the story that the reader is never quite sure of the veracity of Joe's version. The scene where he tries to acquire a means of defence may be dark but is pure comedy, that somehow fits with the creepiness factor.
Another excellent, beautifully written tale from McEwan.
McEwan is a great writer; my favorite passages:
"The initial conditions, the force and the direction of the force, define all the consequent pathways, all the angles of collision and return, and the glow of the overhead light bathes the field, the baize and all its moving bodies, in reassuring clarity. I think that while we were still converging, before we made contact, we were in a state of mathematical grace".
"...she had written me some beauties, passionately abstract in their exploration of the ways our love was different from and superior to any that had ever existed. Perhaps the essence of a lover letter, to celebrate the unique".
"The closing down of countless interrelated neural and biochemical exchanges combined to suggest to a naked eye the illusion of the extinguished spark, or the simple departure of a single necessary element. However scientifically informed we count ourselves to be, fear and awe still surprise us in the presence of the dead. Perhaps it's life we're really wondering at".
"Too much was made in pop psychology, and too much expected, of talking things through. Conflicts, like living organisms, had a natural lifespan. The trick was to know when to let them die. At the wrong moment, words could act like so many fibrillating jolts. The creature could revive in pathogenic form, feverishly regenerated by an interesting new formulation or by this or that morbidly 'fresh look' at things".
And lastly (not for the prudish):
"The she put her lips to my ear and it was like the old days. 'You're a bad boy to spend so much money. I'm going to make you f*** me all afternoon".
From that odd but interesting premise comes a intriguing story about how this bizarre and obsessive love threatens Joe's safety and his happy marriage. Although the set up is weird, the emotional changes are totally believable. Having read Atonement but managed to miss the point, I read this with suspicion that the narrator was himself the crazy one, or that he was just misleading us for reasons that would be revealed later.
McEwan pulls it off. Just as a madman can instantly fall in love with a stranger, a love that seemed strong and permanent can erode. The misunderstandings and tensions between Joe and Clarissa are perfectly described, as are the emotions of other characters. Wow.
In keeping with the insidious nature of its subject, even the plot itself initially unfolds as almost a side-text to what initially appears to be the drama of the novel. Like the novel's protagonist we are taken unawares by something which initially seems odd but inconsequential until it becomes all-enveloping.
The novel closes with appendices which are reminiscent of devices used by Michael Creighton in novels such as "The Andromeda Strain". To say more might reveal plot details best savoured in the reading, but in this case I think they're effective in both lowering and heightening the tension that the book creates in a way that a simple continuation of the narrative might have struggled to do.
Unsettling but essential reading. Possibly not if you've been the victim of something like this in the recent past; it may then feel too close to home.