Enduring Love by Ian McEwan

Synopsis, courtesy of Amazon.com:

Enduring Love by Ian McEwanScience writer Joe Rose is spending a day in the country with his long-time lover, Clarissa, when he witnesses a tragic accident–a balloon with a boy trapped in it is being tossed by the wind, and, in an attempt to save the child, a man is killed. As though that isn’t disturbing enough, a man named Jed Parry, who has joined Rose in helping to bring the balloon to safety, believes that something has passed between him and Rose–something that sparks in Parry a deranged, obsessive kind of love.

Soon Parry is stalking Rose, who turns to science to try to understand the situation. Parry apparently suffers from a condition known to psychiatrists as de Clerambault Syndrome, in which the afflicted individual obsessively pursues the object of his desire until the frustrated love turns to hate and rage–transforming one of life’s most valued experiences into pathological horror. As Rose grows more paranoid and terrified, as his treasured relationship with Clarissa breaks under the tension of his fear, Rose realizes that he needs to find something beyond the cold reasoning of science if this love is to be endured.

With the cool brilliance and deep compassion that defined his best novels (The Comfort of Strangers, The Innocent), Ian McEwan has once again spun a tale of life intruded upon by shocks of violence – and discovered profound truths about the nature of love and the power of forgiveness.

After spending several weeks apart, Joe Rose is enthusiastically waiting to see his wife, Clarissa. (Enthusiasm is the most appropriate description, not excitement, as Joe Rose is nothing if not coolly logical.) Clarissa and Joe are a quiet, intellectual couple: Clarissa is a professor who specializes in Keats, while Joe is a disappointed science writer who, despite being reduced to writing what he sees as pseudo-scientific articles, has achieved some success, allowing him to float on and be content. Joe has planned a picnic in the English countryside for their reunion, but they’ve barely opened their bottle of wine when a helium balloon, clearly out of control, comes drifting where they are picnicking.

Joe and four other men grab onto the ropes hanging from the basket, but they are lifted clean off the ground, and their notions of heroism vanish as they are raised higher by the wind. All but one of them let go of the ropes; John ’s misguided valor causes his death, and Joe says of witnessing the fall:

We watched him drop. … No forgiveness, no special dispensation for flesh, or bravery, or kindness. Only ruthless gravity. … He fell as he had hung, a stiff little black stick. I‘ve never seen such a terrible thing as that falling man.

All the witnesses are left shaken by the incident. Joe repeatedly asks himself, was he the first one to let go? Joe, being logical to a fault, rationalizes his behavior as the natural instinct for self-preservation, but this doesn’t prevent him from feeling waves of guilt at John ’s death. What seems to be the central conflict is now established, but Enduring Love, surprisingly, delves into something else entirely. After John Logan’s fall, Joe exchanges a look with Jed Parry, one of the other failed heroes, and this launches the real catastrophe: Jed falls madly (and i do mean madly, as in the obsessive sense) in love with Joe. Jed is convinced that Joe returns his love (in fact, he believes that Joe was the one to initiate the nonexistent affair) and begins to hang around outside his apartment, leave scores of messages on his answering machine, and write letters extolling the virtue of God’s, and by extension his, love.

Joe, ever the pragmatist, researches and discovers that Jed suffers from a condition called De Clerambault’s Syndrome. Jed’s persistence soon causes Joe to suffer from his own brand of mania, which triggers a rift between him and Clarissa (whom Joe accuses of being unsupportive) and brings about Joe’s old feelings of inadequacy about his profession. The logic Joe depends on cannot save him from Jed’s unwanted and increasingly aggressive affection, so Joe abandons logic altogether and buys a gun from his one-time drug dealer to deal with Jed decisively.

Enduring Love is a narrative tour de force that traverses the timorous bridge between science and emotion, as well as the areas in which those two things overlap. This is not a breathless Fatal Attraction-type redux; the novel attempts to tackle obsession, guilt, delusion, and love, and all the gray areas wherein all those things intersect. Surprisingly, it succeeds and does so damn near flawlessly.

The title certainly refers to Jed’s obsessive love for Joe, as Joe and Clarissa’s marriage is in tatters by the end of the novel (although it is implied in the fictional appendix that the two managed to reconcile, it doesn’t quite match the singular, relentless devotion that Jed has shown Joe). The characters were all deserving of sympathy (yes, even the wretched sociopath that is Jed Parry) and richly constructed, despite Joe’s restricted point of view. Like his protagonist, Mr. McEwan’s tone is one of aloofness. There were times when Joe’s stubborn rationalism was maddening, but it is consistent with the point that Mr. McEwan is making: that some emotions cannot be explained away by science, and that the things that define us – our love for the people we share our lives with – are unpredictable and ambiguous by nature.

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Filed under Postmodern Literature

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