Postal Reading group
December 2022
Notes on the book Enduring love by Ian McEwan

Conincidentally, I had recently finished reading another book by Ian McEwan when this one arrived. Enduring love came as something of a surprise, at least when compared with some of the descriptions of the plot. Part psychological thriller, part drama of a failing marriage, and part account of the conflict between the arts and sciences, there are a lot of themes in this book.

The basic story is that Joe had planned a picnic in the conuntryside to celebrate the return of his wife, Clarissa, from a six week trip to America. The picnic rapidly goes wrong when Joe has to assist at the scene of a tragic ballooning accident. Although the child in the basket was saved, one of the rescuers died in a fall from a trailing rope. Following this, Joe acquires a male stalker in the form of Jed Parry who also witnessed the accident, and who is convinced that he is on a mission to bring Joe, the science writer, to God’s love.

Perhaps misled by one of the descriptions of this book, I had expected Enduring love to be rather more closely focussed on the conflict between Joe’s science and Jed’s religion. However, the main theme rapidly becomes that of Joe’s stalker: arguably classic material for a psychological thriller, and everyone’s worst nightmare. Although this book does not create the suspense and ‘excitement’ which I would associate with the genre, the plot is nevertheless rapid, with Jed soon telephoning or writing, while taking care to ensure that he doesn’t give the kind of evidence to justify involving the police, or to convince Clarissa. With his marriage in danger of breaking down, Joe’s desperation is apparent, and entirely understandable.

It is at this point that the book fails to live up to its initial promise, and the storyline becomes all too predictable: Joe’s marriage does start to break down, and Jed becomes dangerous. The scenes around Joe purchasing the gun, and the tale of John and Jean Logan seem to add little, and only succeed in postponing the inevitable. Likewise, some of the characters, and that of Joe (the typical dismissive, arrogant, scientist figure) in particular seem to be rather steroetypical. While much of the book is told from Joe’s point of view, there seems to be an unwritten intention that we should consider Clarissa’s viewpoint. The problem is, I’m not sure that she acts entirely honourably either. Although supposedly happily married for seven years, she suddenly becomes outraged by Joe’s failure to communicate, and considers him to be deluded when he does. Arguably he couldn’t win!

At this point, I can’t help observing some similarities with the other Ian McEwan book which I had recently read, Lessons. Although the storylines are completely different, some similarities are nevertheless striking: male characters who believe they have failed to reach their potential, undergoing a mid-life crisis and affected by an inappropriate expression of love. Likewise, the female characters often seem more successful, and suddenly impatient with a relationship which they perceive as having failed. That said, it is difficult to see the marriage between Joe and Clarissa as succeeding in the longer term, despite their previous loyalty: they had little in common and there was always the lack of children hanging over them.

The big promise of the discussion of the conflict between science and religion fails to materialise, although the real debate in this book is around science and the arts. With a comment like “Do the scientific illiterates who run this place really believe that literature is mankind’s greatest achievement?” (p. 42), the writing hardly seems likely to do science any favours. However, having been on the receiving end of anti-scientific prejudice myself, I do have some sympathy with Joe. With the only explicitly religious character being Jed, who somehow seems to make even God’s ‘love’ sound like a vague threat, the real opposition to science comes from Clarissa, the successful academic researching the poetry of Keats.

Another possible theme in the story centres around the nature of proof and what counts as evidence. The lunchtime conversation in chapter 19 and the subsequent scenes in the police station draw attention to the unreliability of witness evidence. The comparison with the scientific method is unwarranted, however, as scientists have the luxury of performing controlled experiments to confirm hypotheses, and once human nature has been removed from the equation, purely physical systems are often better behaved.

In conclusion, this is an interesting book with an original plot. While the psychological thriller element starts well, it ultimately falls flat with a predictable ending. Some of the characters, particularly that of Joe, seem stereotypical, while other scenes seem to add little to the plot. Likewise, many of the scientific anecdotes, although interesting, don’t really add anything to the book. Equally, the similarities with some of the author’s other work are interesting, but I haven’t read enough by the author to regard them as anything other than the "random clustering" that we hear so much about.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler