Author: Ian McEwan

2007, Jonathan Cape

Filed under Literary

I had mixed feelings about McEwan when I started Enduring Love.  I hesitated to pick it up because Atonement had left such a mixed impression on me.  Right after I finished it, I found that novel to be heartbreaking and beautiful, but the more I thought about it the more annoying I found the virtuosity of the writing and the tidiness of the structure.  I felt like I had been tricked into reading a book that could’ve been better than it was.

But Enduring Love kept coming up in my novel workshops, and after an argument with a friend about McEwan I decided to give it a shot.  While it didn’t have nearly the same impact on me as Atonement, it didn’t leave me with any of the same cloying afterthoughts.  I found it easier to enjoy the deftness of McEwan’s prose independent of any heavy-handed intertextual design.  The story is compact and compelling, and it convinced me that McEwan was worth a second look, and probably a third and a fourth.

After Joe witnesses a hot air ballooning accident, he and his wife Clarissa become entangled in a bizarre love triangle with one of the other witnesses.  Jed Parry, a zealot to his own peculiar religious beliefs, becomes infatuated with Joe.  He wants to save him, he wants them to be together forever, and he wants Clarissa out of the picture.  His obsession seems harmless enough at first, but as the pattern of Parry’s harassment intensifies Joe begins to feel more threatened.  When he is unable to convince Clarissa or the local police that Parry represents a real danger, he is forced take their protection into his own hands.

Joe is a fairly intrusive narrator, introducing occasional scientific and historical asides, even shifting into the third person for an entire chapter to tell the story from Clarissa’s point of view.  His intrusions are mostly interesting and effective, helping to build suspense and emotional intensity.  They rarely impede the action, and the story clips along without shorting the reader on attention to detail or insight into character.

Joe and Clarissa are fleshed out to the point where you almost stop thinking of them as characters and more as troubled and occasionally frustrating acquaintances.  Parry is less compelling, one-dimensional in his pathology, as if he were designed solely to create tension and conflict, which he does and does well.

In the end, Joe and Clarissa carry the novel.  Their relationship and its trials are complex and convincing enough to see the story through from the balloon accident to their final showdown with Parry.  Enduring Love offers a few clever intertextual touches, including letters from Parry and a psychiatrist’s report on his case.  The letters work, the psychiatrist’s report doesn’t, but it’s tucked away safely in an appendix at the end of the book where it can’t do much harm to the rest of the narrative.

Similar reads: Saturday (Ian McEwan), Bel Canto (Ann Patchett), Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro)