When Love is Too Much

Love is one of the things that is difficult to define. We don’t even know when it will strike us but when it does, we cannot find the words or even the superlatives to fully capture how we feel. In the blink of an eye, at the sleight of the hand, it just happens. It sweeps us off of our feet. And as we move along our lives, it slowly dawns on us how love takes different shapes. There is the kind of love that transforms us and heals us. There is the kind of love that rouses the best in us, and sometimes, even the worst in us. There is the kind of love that changes our perspective of the world or totally destroys it. There are many kinds of love out there; we experience it in all its shapes and sizes and each type leaves its imprint on us. As immortalized by F. Scott Fitzgerald, widely regarded as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century: “There are all kinds of love in this world, but never the same love twice.”

There is also the kind of love that pushes us to the brink. Unfortunately for 47-year-old Joe Rosen, it was this kind of love that he would unexpectedly encounter. His unusual encounter was captured by prolific British writer Ian McEwan in his sixth novel, Enduring Love (1997). Joe’s story commenced on a beautiful and cloudless but windy spring day. Joe and his partner, Clarissa Mellon went out for a picnic at the Chilterns, where many have converged to enjoy the spring breeze. It was supposed to be a peaceful day but when Joe was about to open a bottle of wine, the peaceful spring atmosphere was interrupted by a shrill cry. It was a plea for help by one of the picnic-goers. A helium balloon got unmoored. A ten-year-old boy was in the basket while his grandfather, desperately trying to save his grandson from an accident, was being dragged by the balloon.

Joe joined a group of men who immediately jumped into action. They tried to bring the unmoored balloon into safety, which they were able to successfully do. In the process, they also rescued the ten-year-old boy who was unscathed by the experience. Unfortunately, John Logan, a doctor who was part of the rescue team, perished through unforeseen circumstances. His death weighed down on Joe, a pang of guilt that would burden him for the rest of the story. However, it was a different encounter that would put his orderly life into disarray. In the confusion following the successful rescue and the unexpected passing of Logan, Joe made a passing glace with one of his fellow rescuers, Jed Parry. Little did Joe did realize that this brief glance left a deep impression on Jed. Later in the safety of his home, Joe received a call from an anonymous number. Joe simply shrugged the incident off.

“So can we accept that it was right, every man for himself? Were we all happy afterwards that this was a reasonable course? We never had that comfort, for there was a deeper covenant, ancient and automatic, written in our nature. Co-operation – the basis of our earliest hunting successes, the force behind our evolving capacity for language, the glue of our social cohesion. Our misery in the aftermath was proof that we knew we had failed ourselves. But letting go was in our nature too. Selfishness is also written in our hearts.”

~ Ian McEwan, Enduring Love

As the days went by, Joe started receiving more calls from Jed. Slowly, the calls turned into outright stalking. Joe felt two eyes burrowing behind his back. Jed was never covert in his stalking; he always made his presence felt. When Joe confronted Jed as to his unusual behavior, Jed said that Joe was unconditionally in love with him. Jed reasoned that the glance that they exchanged at the Chilterns, brief it may be, was the proof of Joe’s feelings for him. According to Jed, Joe was sending signals to him, such as the moving of the curtains. It was clear to Jed that Joe was in love with him. Shook beyond his core, Joe pushed Jed aside but it only made Jed come back for more. For Jed, Joe was simply in denial of what he felt for Jed. A fleeting moment that passed between two strangers suddenly turned into an obsession.

Joe, a man of science and rational thought, was rather unprepared to deal with Jed and his unusual confession. Caught an impasse, he did the most rational plan of action his scientific and academic mind could come up with: research. His research on what was making Jed tick yielded a subtype of a delusional disorder, the de Clérambault’s Syndrome, or more commonly referred to as erotomania. This disorder was named after French psychiatrist Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault. Cases of erotomania have been common since ancient times and were even referred to in the works of Hippocrates, Erasistratus, and Plutarch. Before it was referred to as erotomania and de Clérambault’s Syndrome, it was called a bevy of names such as erotic paranoia, erotic self-referent delusion, and even phantom lover syndrome.

As portrayed by the case of Joe and Jed, the disorder is a form of paranoid delusion which is manifested in an individual’s firm belief that he/she is the center of another individual’s attention or affection. The delusion develops despite the absence of contact between the two individuals. The object of obsession has also done nothing to encourage the other individual and yet the obsession persists. One of the most well-known cases of de Clérambault’s syndrome was mentioned in the novel. It involved a patient who de Clérambault himself has counseled: a woman who was obsessed with British monarch George V. For long hours a day, she would stand outside Buckingham Palace, fervently believing that the curtain’s movements were signals sent by the monarch to communicate his desire for her. The condition was further explored by de Clérambault in his comprehensive review paper titled “Les psychoses passionelles” published in 1921.

De Clérambault’s paper also cited that the disorder was more prevalent among women, such as the case of King George V and of Margaret Mary Ray, an American woman who gained media attention after stalking late-night TV entertainer David Letterman, and former astronaut Story Musgrave. It is not, however, uncommon to find cases of men suffering the same affliction, such as the case of an American man who, for about 15 years, kept sending strange packages to Queen Elizabeth II. There are also popular cases of men exhibiting erotomaniac behavior who stalked popular Hollywood personalities. Among men, it was observed that the disorder can manifest violent and even stalker-like behaviors. These behaviors were vividly projected through Jed through telephone calls, letters, and even brazen advances which caught Joe off guard. While some cases of stalking were linked to erotomania, these two behaviors do not necessarily coexist.

“In the months after we’d met, and before we’d bought the apartment, she had written me some beauties, passionately abstract in the ways our love was different from and superior to any that had ever existed. Perhaps that’s the essence of a love letter, to celebrate the unique. I had tried to match her, but all that sincerity would permit me were the facts, and they seemed miraculous enough to me: a beautiful woman loved and wanted to be loved by a large, clumsy, balding fellow who could hardly believe his luck.”

~ Ian McEwan, Enduring Love

Enduring Love managed to capture vividly the impact of such a high level of obsession. Joe, who was unsettled by Jed’s persistent stalking and ominous messages, tried to consult Clarissa about Jed. However, Clarissa was skeptical and dismissed Joe’s claims. She did not believe in Jed’s existence and she believed that was Joe unhinged, fixated over the idea of someone obsessing over him. The resemblance of Jed’s writing to Joe’s was also uncanny. She also accused her husband of dishonesty. Left with no recourse, Joe approached the police station. Again, he was met with dismissive gestures. The pieces of evidence that he possessed were not enough to issue a warrant of arrest on Jed or did they even illicit a further look into his allegation. He was being pushed to the brink that he even grappled with the idea that he might be the one losing his mind, that it was he who was exhibiting symptoms of paranoia. But Jed’s presence was everywhere and yet no one believed Joe’s claims. There is one course of action left, deal with Jed on his own lest Jed’s obsession causes further harm.

As the story moved forward, another storyline started to emerge. To deal with his guilt, Joe met Jean Logan, John Logan’s wife. He tried to soothe her grief by reiterating her husband’s heroic deed. Jean, however, refused to listen because certain items were found in her husband’s car, items that were not supposed to be there. The Chiltern was also not part of his route. Was John cheating on his wife? As the mystery developed, Jean asked Joe to ask everyone present at the picnic if they noticed anyone with her husband. This digression from the main storyline, however, served very little purpose to the overall story. It came across as an unnecessary plot device that disrupted the flow of the story. It was only one of many blunders that weighed down on the plausibility of the story. Another notable and random literary device was the ballooning incident.

For a book with a promising premise, gaps started to appear as the story started moving forward. The exploration of the main subject, de Clérambault’s syndrome was cursory at best. The adverse effects it had on the subject were vividly captured in the story. However, McEwan failed to explore deeper into this delusional complex, choosing to stick to data that can be easily accessed. The curtain signal lacked imagination and was a manifestation of the author’s laziness. This lack of exploration was in direct contrast to McEwan’s fixation on the sciences; he has the tendency to interject science in his works. This was again projected through Joe, an academic science writer. He used science in an attempt to identify Jed’s affliction. Joe’s belief in science was also contrasted against Jed’s radical religious views. While there were some evocative exchanges on the subject, the exploration of religion was heavy-handed and lacking; the leaning towards science was palpable.

One controversial element of the novel was the appendix. Professing to be a scientific paper titled A Homo-Erotic Obsession, with Religious Overtones: A Clinical Variant of de Clerambault’s Syndrome, it elucidated on a case study that closely echoed every element of the novel. The case study summarily captured what the novel was about but anyone without access to further information can conclude that it was a manifestation of the author’s laziness, for simply relying on the “case study”. However, the case study was fictional.

“I watched our friends’ wary, intelligent faces droop at our tale. Their shock was a mere shadow of our own, resembling more the goodwilled imitation of that emotion, and for this reason it was a temptation to exaggerate, to throw a rope of superlatives across the abyss that divided experience from its representation by anecdote.”

~ Ian McEwan, Enduring Love

McEwan is a master of realist prose. His prose perfectly captures both the beauty and the disorder of the quotidian. Usually, it works. However, Enduring Love was devoid of the powers of this subtly evocative prose. It was plodded down with repetitions that kept reminding the readers of “Joe’s love for Jed. The transitions were abrupt. A slow burner, the story took time to develop and none of the characters were particularly likable nor fully developed. Joe was an unreliable narrator and his actions and reactions did not invite sympathy. Clarissa and Jed were also caricatures. There was a redemption arc towards the end, a sign of hope but it did little to save a thin story.

For all its promise, Enduring Love failed to deliver. It explored interesting ideas about love, trust, religion, and the sciences. It had all the elements that make McEwan’s prose stand out. Unfortunately, the end product was an underdeveloped story. McEwan drew out a cast of characters and made their lives intersect through an unusual set of circumstances. In their midst, McEwan introduced de Clérambault’s Syndrome, to add some flavoring to an otherwise bland story. However, de Clérambault’s Syndrome’s place in the story was tenuous at best. Its exploration was ephemeral, almost an afterthought. The resolution of the conflicts was rushed and what came across was a predictable story. While Enduring Love was not perfect, it was not entirely bad. There were some bright spots and even some hopeful messages.

Ratings

41%

Characters (30%) – 10%
Plot (30%) – 11%
Writing (25%) – 14%
Overall Impact (15%) – 6%

I am no stranger to the works of Ian McEwan. He won me over with his popular novel, Atonement. This admiration for his prose was solidified with my third McEwan novel, Saturday, which I read just last year. His prose lacks the flair of his contemporaries Murakami, Rushdie, and Kundera but he has this knack for capturing the beauty of the quotidian. His prose, nevertheless, flourishes with his brilliant strokes. It was because of these favorable experiences that I was looking forward to Enduring Love; I even included it in my 2021 Top 21 Reading List. Imagine my disappointment when the novel didn’t live up to my expectations. Before I read the novel, I didn’t know it grappled with de Clérambault’s Syndrome, something that was also new to me. It was what drew me in. However, the novel didn’t live up to my expectations. Everything about it – from the story to the characters, to the writing – was subpar; I could hardly imagine it was the work of McEwan. It also echoed too much of Saturday that I was unable to enjoy the experience. Beyond de Clérambault’s Syndrome, Enduring Love was nothing but an ordinary and predictable story, one that we have all read about. Even the exploration of the disorder was cursory at best. I wouldn’t have minded if the story was longer.

Book Specs

Author: Ian McEwan
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Publishing Date: 1998
Number of Pages: 245
Genre: Literary, Thriller

Synopsis

This story begins on a windy spring day in the Chilterns when the calm, organized life of Joe Rose is shattered by a ballooning accident. The afternoon, Rose reflects, could have ended in mere tragedy, but for his brief meeting with Jed Parry. Unknown to Rose, something passes between them – something that gives birth in Parry to an obsession so powerful that it will test to the limits Rose’s beloved scientific rationalism, threaten the love of his wife Clarissa and drive him to take desperate measures to stay alive.

Totally compelling, utterly and terrifyingly convincing, Enduring Love is the story of how an ordinary man can be driven to the brink of murder and madness by another’s delusions. It is the finest novel Ian McEwan has written in his remarkable career.

About the Author

To learn more about British writer Ian McEwan, click here.