Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 24, 2011

Enduring Love (1997) by Ian McEwan, read by David Threlfall

Enduring Love has had rave reviews, but I found it taxed my patience. I almost abandoned it.

It begins with a compelling drama: Joe, having a picnic with his lady-love Clarissa, dashes over to help when a runaway balloon threatens the life of a boy trapped inside the basket.  He and some other men grasp the ropes and are lifted up into the air as the balloon soars into the sky.  One of the men dies, but that’s not the worst of it.  One of the other men develops a very strange obsessive love for Joe and this unwanted experience transforms his life.

Because this obsession is so bizarre, nobody believes Joe, not even Clarissa, and she and others express their doubts so cogently that I began to doubt him myself.  So far so good, a plot with a dubious narrator can be fun, and the ingredients are there in this novel for the makings of an absorbing thriller.

The problem is that I became very tired of the narrative voice.   Joe is such a pompous know-it-all, rationalizing and analysing everything, I wanted to burst his over-inflated ego with something long and sharp!  There were long stretches where I felt as if (like Clarissa) I were being lectured; equally irritating were the sections where he pontificated at length about this and that, but did not condescend to reveal these pearls of wisdom to Clarissa because (he thinks) she is too emotional.  There were times when I felt as I were eavesdropping on an argument that McEwan had had with his wife; it felt as if points were being scored.

On top of this there were equally long and even more painful stretches where we were treated to Jed’s obsessive letters to Joe, professing love and promising eternal salvation and happiness if only Joe would accept the lord and admit to their mutual love.   I recognise that McEwan was portraying the repetitious nature of an obsessive’s behaviour, but in the end I was sick of it.  I was also bored by the clichéd depiction of the police as incompetent, disinterested and patronising; Mr Plod might have worked for Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie in the days before the professionalisation of the police force but for me the stereotype had no credibility in this novel.

In the end I only listened to the last couple of CDs because I wanted to see how McEwan could write his characters out of the mess they were in, and so I was very disappointed to learn from the appendix that he had more or less lifted the plot from a real case study.

These irritations deflected my attention from real issues that McEwan was writing about: the effects of obsession on its victims; the way couples today expect so much from each other; and how science has so alienated itself from the everyday that it now needs specialist journalism to communicate with ordinary people.

Adam Mars-Jones at the Guardian had a few reservations too.

© Lisa Hill

Author: Ian McEwan
Title: Enduring Love
Narrator: David Threlfall
Publisher: Chivers Audio Books 2005
ISBN: 9781405671040
Source: Casey Cardinia Library


  1. I couldn’t agree more. I read this book years ago as I was interested in how McEwan would explore obsession, and it seemed such a compelling and odd situation. But while it has one of the very best first chapters I have ever read (possibly the very best?!) I felt let down by the second half of the book, where I lost all empathy for and belief in the characters.


    • Yes, I was really surprised by this book because everything else I’ve read by McEwan has been terrific.
      Perhaps the downside of being famous is that your publishers will publish your duds because they know they’ll sell anyway.


  2. Hi Lisa, I found the most remarkable thing about Enduring Love to be the well-told story of the balloon incident at the beginning. It pulled me into the book, but then I began to be repelled, as you were, by the voice. I did admire McEwan’s portrayal of the type of stalking that psychiatry labels as erotomania, and its effect on the victim and the victim’s relationships with others. I think he got this right, but it was still a chore putting up with such an unlikeable character as Joe and his, as you say, pontificating voice.


  3. Too bad you didn’t like it Lisa. I love Mc and I loved this book. He’s always so twisted though isn’t he. I can’t imagine listening to this rather than reading it. I think that would affect your experience of the book. I don’t think any of McEwan’s works would benefit from being ripped off the page. You need to be free to pause or slow down when you need to imo.


  4. True, Bryce, that balloon incident is brilliant and I bet it would have a movie audience on the edge of their seats. And the portrayal of the impact of mental illness on the hapless victim is spot on too. Having been in a not dissimilar situation myself I can vouch for the sense of outrage that losing control of a safe, well-ordered life can bring.
    Maybe what Cynthia says about it being an audio-book is pertinent? Certanly the narrator seemed to enhance my sense that Joe was a bit of a control freak from the start. But then, that bit with the gun, that was so…so…unBritish!


  5. Cynthia’s point is pertinent – I can imagine the voice being more off-putting when heard rather than read. Joe is an even more off-putting character in the movie, despite being played by Daniel Craig (although the story was somewhat changed in the film). And yes, the ballooning incident was full of suspense in the movie, but overall the film didn’t engage me as much as the book did, perhaps because the stalking story kept me involved in the novel, so that I grudgingly put up with the voice. And McEwan can write.


    • Don’t worry, it won’t put me off McEwan!


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