Ok, perhaps a four stars rating is a bit over generous with this book. But somehow I had to stress out how "Enduring Love" is the best novel by Ian Mc Ewan I have read so far. You may be surprised, but it's true.
I put this one over "Black Dogs" and "The Child in Time" and "First Love Last Rites" and even "The Cement Garden" (although I reckon how the last one might deserve a re-read).
So what does it make this book better? I am not sure to know, but I'll try to explain it.
I can see how many reviewers here and there have found disappointing the fact that after a brilliant beginning this novel goes spiralling downwards by proceeding in circles and losing its grip. I can see their point.
"Enduring Love" has, in fact, an extremely convincing first chapter, a kinetic and cinematic beginning, as perfectly shaped as a geometrical problem. There is not a single out of place word in the dramatic and compelling very first pages of this novel involving the balloon you see in the cover (which, by the way, is "grey" and not red).
Then Mc Ewan decides to win over the temptation of investigating any further on the balloon trail and takes a step forward and back at the same time, developing and following a parallel plot, almost a spin-off of the orignal accident. There we can see his mastery which is not simply "proceeding in circles" but working on a very peculiar double obsession revolving around the interpretation and misinterpretation of love.
Unlike he did elsewhere, say "The Child in Time", here Mc Ewan does not experiment too much, keeping his focus on the main character and his account with only an unexplainable detour from the first to the third person at some point. Ian does not juggle with time. We do not have flashbacks and flashforwards here, but a growing tension and a growing sense of frustration which is beautifully written. Everything is realistic, or so it seems. And this makes "Enduring Love" stronger: Mc Ewan makes things happen in a rather logical way.
The main characters of this novel behave in a plausible, but not predictable way. In short, I could see them. Not that it always happened with these Mc Ewanesque men and women drinking Beaujolais and Chablis and gathering around either the south of France or the Vale of Oxford to end up somewhere between Arles and Headington.
Actually, the Oxfordshire element is rather enjoyable and a pleasure to read, at least for me. The beautiful Port Meadow is a recurring location (see "On Chesil Beach") in Mc Ewan's novels and it is indeed an eye-opener place where I myself spent several idle Sunday afternoons, taking a walk with some friends and staring at the peaceful, ruminant cattle. It's clear how the author, having studied and lived in Oxford for a while love these places and is able to deliver a concise but affectionate description of them. Besides, the references to the police having their own "priorities" and not paying attention to a case of harassment not involving any phyisical threat made me smile having contacted the stolid Thames Valley Police officers in the recent past. Well said and written, Ian!
There is only one minor detail that left me rather puzzled.
Whereas Mc Ewan made some extra research on John Keats and William Wordsworth in order to write this novel, he forgot to do the same with Charles Lutwidge Dodgson also known as Lewis Carroll.
As much as JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, the creator of "Alice in Wonderland" is a literary (and commercial) glory of Oxford and the town even offers "Carroll Tours" which flocks of European or Asian tourists attend in religious awe. "This is the house where Carroll slept". "This is the dining hall where Carroll used to have lunch". "This is the stone where Carroll once sat on". "This is Carroll's dodo". And so on.
I bet Ian Mc Ewan never took part to these tours. And yet as a former Oxonian he should have known Carroll's life better. At some point he states that the fictional father of Alice was "the dean of Christ Church". Well, Ian, he never was. He was a lecturer. A math lecturer. And when he was playing with "his Alice" along the shores of river Thames, the girl was the daughter of the actual dean.
But, hey, this is nothing. How can I be so picky to write twelve lines on a single unfortunate sentence? "Enduring Love" is a very good reading. Don't listen to its detractors, please. And forgive me for being pedant. After all, there is a lot about forgiveness in this book.