Joe Rose, a popular science writer, and his partner Clarissa, a Keats scholar, are picnicking in the English countryside when an accident happens: a hot air balloon carrying a man and his grandson goes out of control. Five men, including Joe, run to help, holding onto the balloon's ropes; when a gust of wind lifts the balloon, four men, including Joe, let go but the fifth holds on, is lifted high in the air, and falls to his death.

One of the would-be rescuers, Jed Parry, becomes obsessed with Joe, and begins to stalk him, interpreting all rejections as veiled invitations. Jed wants both to convert Joe to charismatic Christianity and, it seems, to become his lover. Communication is impossible, the police are no help, and under the strain Clarissa and Joe's relationship comes apart. In a restaurant, someone at the next table is shot, making Joe realize that Jed is trying to kill him. After breaking into their apartment, threatening Clarissa at knifepoint, and then attempting suicide, Jed is arrested and committed to a psychiatric hospital.

In a subplot, the dead man's widow suffers a loss exacerbated by the belief that her husband had been having an affair. Joe learns the truth about the suspected affair and is able to reveal to the widow that her husband had been faithful after all.

The book ends with two appendices: an invented article from a British psychiatry journal presenting Jed's case, and a letter written to Joe by Jed three years later, still hospitalized, and still, deludedly, in love.


This novel is both a chilling investigation of pathological romantic obsession and a pointed revelation of the social constructs that enable humans to communicate and co-exist. Jed's version of reality (Joe loves Jed) is incommensurable with Joe's (Jed is a dangerous stalker). No amount of rational explanation or evidence can allow either to enter the other's point of view.

Joe says of Jed that "He had to block out the facts that didn't fit"(229). The same can be said, to various degrees, of most of the characters. Clarissa and Joe cannot enter each other's understanding of events. The dead man's wife has constructed a version of his last days that haunts her until Joe can give her contrary, and concrete, evidence.

Joe feels inferior because he is a popular writer; he narrates science for a lay readership rather than being a scientist himself. McEwan explores the relationship between narrative and theory, feeling and reason, as modes of knowing in both art and science, as well as in our often failed attempts to understand each other.

The balloon accident in the first section offers a neat encapsulation of a classic ethical conflict: the individual must weigh cooperation (if everyone had held onto the rope no-one would have been killed), self-interest (four let go), and altruism (one man sacrifices his life trying to save the child in the basket). A reliable solution is possible only if one can know what the others intend.

Lacking this insight, the issue becomes both simple and profound. As McEwan puts it, "Hanging a few feet above the Chilterns escarpment, our crew enacted morality's ancient irresolvable dilemma: us, or me"(15). "Me" wins, and the rest of the novel delineates the unsettling implications of isolated self-interest in even our most generous reaching out to others.


Nan A. Talese/Doubleday

Place Published

New York



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