Ian McEwan's enthralling new novel Enduring Love begins rather simply "with the touch of a wine bottle and a shout of distress." Joe Rose leaps up from a picnic with his wife, Clarissa, and runs to help a boy trapped in the basket of an ascending balloon. He and four other men run from all sides to assist the boy.
All five men grab ropes dangling from the balloon, but four of them drop off as the wayward balloon rises, leaving one brave man clinging on for life. Eventually he loses his grip and falls hundreds of feet to the ground. "I've never seen such a terrible thing as that falling man," Joe writes later.
In a moment of unnatural calm after the man's death, Joe turns to one of the other men, Jed Parry, and gives him a quick, nervous, reassuring nod. "It's all right," he says before running to attend to the dead man. In that instant, an obsession is borne.
Parry's obsession with Joe manifests itself almost immediately, and it is confirmed that night when he calls to tell him: "I just wanted you to know, I understand what you're feeling. I feel it too. I love you."
Already struggling with guilt over the death of the fallen man, Joe must now also fend off the advances of Parry, a man of deep religious conviction, with an increasing propensity towards violence.
Essentially, Enduring Love is a study of de Clerambault's syndrome. According to the book, in 1942 the French psychiatrist de Clerambault described his eponymous syndrome as a state of erotomania in which the "'subject,' usually a woman, has the intense delusional belief that a man, the 'object,' often of higher social standing, is in love with her." Every gesture the object makes--drawing a curtain, running a hand along a hedge--is interpreted as a sign of the object's underlying love. And in many cases, it is a love that the subject takes with him or her unrequited to the grave.
McEwan's examination of Parry's homoerotic mania is not without sympathy, but he also show us how debilitating the syndrome is to its object, Joe, and his relationship with Clarissa. Joe quickly grows irritable and eventually irrational himself, threatening the fabric of what was once a stable relationship. McEwan's sure hand makes Enduring Love terse, lucid reading, and his insight into the subtler workings of the human mind makes it a thoughtful read. He develops his plot steadily, incorporating several surprising developments which ensure the novel is difficult to put down.
In an appendix to the novel, a fictitious professor notes this about Jed Parry's obsession" 'it is not always easy to accept that one of our most valued experiences may merge into psychopathology."
McEwan's subtle prose says it more elegantly near the beginning of the novel. Upon first observing the giant helium balloon, Joe considered it "a precarious form of transport when the wind rather than the pilot set the course." But then he thinks, "perhaps this was the very nature of the attraction."
So, too, the human need for love is sometimes so great that it pays little heed to the course it takes, regardless of how reckless.