Joe and Clarissa are out for a picnic when they see an accident unfolding with a helium balloon. As Joe is trying to help hold on to the balloon and keep it from flying off, he catches the eye of one of the other helpers, Jed. Soon afterwards, Jed makes contact with Joe, claiming that he loves Joe, and that he knows that Joe loves him.
This was a recommendation from A Good Read, in which they all mentioned how good the opening section was. And that was right: the way McEwan describes the balloon being tugged into the air, its basket bumping along the ground, and the aerial view of the field with people rushing in from each of the four corners towards the balloon in the middle, were really evocative (and I still have the image in my mind now).
However, I think they all said that this was the highlight of the book, and that was right: while the rest was good, it didn't come up to the standard of the first chapter.
The story is written in the first person by Joe, who is at first bewildered and then concerned and then angry about Jed's attentions. Joe is a science journalist, and so determines to research what's wrong with Jed, and concludes that Jed suffers from de Clerambault's syndrome, which causes Jed to be certain that Joe loves him. Increasingly convinced of this, he attempts to persuade other people to take his concern's seriously, but no-one does.
There are some fairly heavy hints in here that Joe is an unreliable narrator: some of the things he witnesses are not seen by other people; he erases all of Jed's answerphone messages so that Clarissa isn't able to listen (which makes Clarissa - and the reader - wonder if they really happened). More significantly, when Joe shows Jed's letters to Clarissa, she seems on the verge of pointing out that Joe actually wrote them himself ("look at the handwriting, Joe"). And later on, after an incident at a restaurant where someone is shot, all of the witnesses except Joe report the gunman talking in either French or Arabic.
In the scene where Joe's being interviewed, a policeman goes through a checklist pointing out instances where Joe's testimony is at odds with everyone else. For one of the items on the list, the policeman has second thoughts about mentioning it, so we don't find out what that was.
All this made me feel fairly confident that Joe would turn out to have been imagining the whole lot, and that there would be a twist at the end where things would be revealed (including the missing point on the policeman's list) that would throw everything into a new light.
But spoiler alert, that didn't happen: it turns out that Joe was right after all, and everyone else has to apologise to him for not having paid enough attention to his worries.
There is also an appendix written in the form of an academic paper which discusses de Clerambault's, based around a case study of Jed. This also appears to confirm Joe's side of the story. Additionally, it reveals information about what happened to Joe afterwards (the main story ended with Joe and Clarissa wondering whether they should split up) including telling us that Joe and Clarissa stayed together and adopted a child.
So the ending of the book was a bit of a puzzle to me: what were all those loose ends in the book which suggested Joe was fantasising? Why reveal in the appendix that Joe and Clarissa adopted? I've read that some readers of the book believed the appendix to be a real case-study, and that McEwan had written a fictionalised story around it, but this didn't occur to me as a possibilty (perhaps if I had thought that, I'd have been more prepared to accept the anomalies of the plot).
Or maybe I just missed the point. It was a very enjoyable read, and worth it for the opening section alone, but I felt a bit let down by the end.
I didn't realise you could get helium balloons of this type, and I'm not sure how common they are. I don't think the story would have worked with a hot-air balloon, although I notice that the picture on the cover of the book in Amazon's store is of a hot-air balloon.
Completed : 20-Jun-2013 (audiobook)