I picked this up because one of my A2 English Literature students has selected it for her coursework partner text, to accompany our class discussions of Hardy and Player One. Ian McEwan is an author I’ve been meaning to read more but never really made a priority, so it’s nice to have a reason to jump him up in the queue.
I really do love the ghetto of genre fiction, but sometimes the overabundance of series of books can leave me in a state of semi-permanent sequel burnout. (This has particularly been the case after inhaling Karen Miller’s Godspeaker trilogy at my roommate’s behest before she gives the books away as a Christmas present.) It’s so nice to settle into a standalone novel, particularly one that is fairly conservative in its plot structure. Enduring Love is an exemplary specimen of a story: it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has compelling protagonists and antagonists who square off in an intense conflict of psychology and emotions.
Joe Rose begins as a fairly bland narrator, despite the predicament McEwan thrusts upon him. Happily puttering through a childless marriage with Clarissa, Joe becomes a participant in a helium ballooning disaster. Though he tries to help, his actions and the actions of other men involved result in loss of life, a burden he and Clarissa must carry forward from that day. More bizarrely, one of the other men involved, Jed Parry, decides that Joe is in love with him—and that he should return Joe’s affections. In this way, Joe acquires a highly religious and very disturbing stalker, whose attentions alienate his wife and begin to unhinge our thoroughly rational narrator.
Joe’s rational nature is one of the cornerstones of the story. It’s what attracted Clarissa to him, and it has served him well in his runner-up career as a science journalist. Yet when we meet Joe, he has entered a darker, more cynical stage of his life. He no longer writes about science with the same wide-eyed fervour that might have infected him as a youth: these days, he composes pieces he knows are facetious or at the very least inaccurate, just because he can spin together enough details to create something he can sell. Joe has, if not exactly sold-out, then abandoned whatever mission he first had as a science writer. It is a crisis of faith of a kind.
As a result of this crisis, Joe is vulnerable. Parry steps into this void. He knows exactly how to needle Joe, how to provoke him into response rather than ignoring Parry’s advances. At first, Joe wants nothing more than for Parry to go away. Yet as he becomes more obsessed with Parry’s presence, the relationship becomes almost symbiotic; Joe spends more and more time focused on Parry, mirroring Parry’s fixation with him. When Clarissa levels the accusation that perhaps he’s misinterpreting Parry’s actions, that perhaps Joe has done something to lead him on, she’s not being entirely unreasonable. (As a side note, though, it’s also interesting to see McEwan invert the traditional gender roles in victim-blaming, thus requiring the male character to voice outrage and disbelief that his partner would think he “was asking for it”.)
And so we come to the masterstroke of Enduring Love: the unreliable narrator. I love this device; it can be used to stunningly good effect. Joe narrates the majority of the book; the exceptions are chapters comprising letters written from Parry to Joe. At first I thought this meant that Parry’s existence as Joe’s stalker must be fact. Then it dawned on me that Joe could be the one writing these letters—something McEwan later echoes in Clarissa’s observation that the handwriting resembles Joe’s own. Threads began to coalesce, and suddenly it made sense: maybe the entire book is Joe’s rambling hallucination.
This possibility peaks in events leading up to the climax. Joe and Clarissa join a friend for dinner at a restaurant. The witness a contract killer attempting to murder a family at the table next to them, only to be foiled at the last moment by an anonymous hero, whom Joe thinks he recognizes as Parry. From this experience, Joe believes that Parry’s obsession has escalated to a violent stage, and that the hit was meant for him. When the actual target turns out to be a public figure with a history of attempts on his life, Joe’s shoestring theory starts sounding even more paranoid. Suddenly, the possibility that McEwan is heavily manipulating our perception of events becomes ever stronger.
I don’t want to spoil the ending by examining the resolution. Suffice it to say, it does get resolved. Having spent a great deal of time enthusing about the narration, however, I’d like to comment on some of the themes McEwan explores throughout the book.
The balloon accident is more than an inciting force for Parry’s possible stalking. It is a touchstone for Joe and Clarissa, a moment when everything in their relationship changed. Later, Joe seeks out the widow of the man who died in the accident. She asks him to do some detective work and determine if he was cheating on her the day of the accident. For reasons he doesn’t entirely fathom himself, Joe accepts the assignment and succeeds. At the end of the novel, we learn more about what actually happened, and we see the widow forgive the ostensible other woman.
The need for forgiveness is a powerful drive, McEwan seems to be saying. So too is the need to forgive. As Joe and Clarissa’s relationship deteriorates in direct proportion to Joe’s obsession with Parry, one begins to wonder whether they can ever forgive each other, whether reconciliation might happen. By raising such possibilities, McEwan does much more than portray simple, shallow ideas of love. Love can be passion; love can be obsession; most of all, love is hard work. It is the triumph of faith and trust over doubt and deceit. We are all human; we all have weaknesses and make mistakes that test our ability to love and to be loved by others. Sometimes that love is strong—it endures. Sometimes it does not—it fades.
Enduring Love is a short but very complex novel. It is simple enough not to tax the mind while reading, but deep enough to swallow that same mind and envelop it in considerations of love, loss, and life. Through his narrative decisions and his careful, almost precise sketches of the characters, McEwan crafts something that is a joy to read: I don’t know how many times I had to put down the book for a moment, just so I could grin and reflect how much fun I was having. It’s that kind of book.