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13th August
written by Steph
Maybe this one should have been called Atonement... or Agony

Maybe this one should have been called Atonement... or Agony

A few years back, my real-life book club selected Atonement by Ian McEwan for our monthly read. I borrowed the book from the public library (in large print, because all the tiny print versions were checked out with massive queues) and got to reading. And it was agony! Some people love Ian McEwan’s style, but that first part of the novel (which I fondly refer to as “before dinner”) is so arduous and horrifically slow. A friend of mine had already read the book and she said that once I could make it to dinner (and beyond) things would pick up so I really should stick with it. So I did, and true to her word, the book did pick up and many shocking things happened, culminating in the ultimate shock ending. While my initial experience with the book was not so good, I did come to appreciate the book, to the extent that I did eventually buy myself a copy of it. The more I thought about it, the more I came to like it (I especially like Part Two, and I’m not really one for war writing). Based on that experience, I figured it might be worthwhile to check out some of McEwan’s other work, so when I saw a decently priced copy of Amsterdam at McKay’s I bought it. I really wish I hadn’t. I don’t know if this book was written early in his career or what, but I thought nearly everything about this book was amateurish and, even worse, boring. The basic premise was intriguing: when Molly Lane dies of a wasting disease that no one saw coming, two of her former lovers (and good friends) make a pledge to one another that they will never let the same thing happen to each other… only this promise winds up taking them both to very dark places and has unexpected consequences that neither could have anticipated. That sounds chilling and potentially cool, right? And the book did win the Booker Prize in 1998, so that has to count for something, right? Everything about this book left me cold. I found the writing incredibly dry and really the best way for me to describe it is just to say that it was boring. Everything McEwan talked about whether it was political scandals or composing symphonies, it just felt so limp and lifeless to me. Some how it felt like he was finding the least interesting words to describe everything and would use those; for a short book, this was one I really had to push myself to keep reading. Even in the moments where I was interested in what was going to happen next, the prose seemed to fight with the story and actually sap it of life. There were no sparks or bolts of vitality, just pure drudgery. Ugh.

And then the story itself… Amsterdam is billed as a modern morality tale, and I suppose it is, only it feels diminished by the fact that it is so obvious! It is pretty apparent as soon as the characters make their pact where this story is going to wind up. And if there’s any doubt in your mind, the first reference to Amsterdam in the book should make things very clear for you… I mean, maybe if the book were called something other than Amsterdam the references to the city itself throughout the novel (which primarily takes place in London) wouldn’t be so salient, but they are, which means that you see the so-called “twists” coming from a mile away. I actually kept hoping something else would happen to derail the story because its final destination was so obvious but there are claims in other reviews that the book crescendos into a shocking climax. Let us be clear: there is nothing surprising or subtle about this book. Even this twist involving a tertiary politician character was one I guessed at pretty early on, so when his scandal was revealed, I felt pretty underwhelmed.

All in all, a really tepid, plodding, uninspiring read. Not the worst book I’ve read this year, but this one flatlines pretty much from start to finish. It was so flaccid that it’s made me seriously consider not reading any more Ian McEwan ever again. At the very least he’s sorely overrated as a writer, and I found this piece staggeringly obvious, unimaginative, and insultingly inelegant. I felt like McEwan picked out topics/ideas that are meant to shock and horrify you, and the clumsily tried to mask them for bigger impact. But the whole time you see the gears turning which just makes him come across like an inept hack with a penchant for manipulation. Rather than art, I felt this was pap. Maybe some authors only have one good book in them, in which case I think we can conclude, Booker Prize or no, this is not it. No wonder after this mess he wrote a book called Atonement – he sure had a lot to repent for.

Rating: 2 out of 5


  1. 08/13/2009

    Steph. Yikes. Ha ha. I actually really loved Atonement from the very first sentence. Amsterdam I wasn’t so into, mostly because the things he talked about didn’t interest me much, but I found the writing really good. This was my first McEwan and while it wasn’t a favourite, I was impressed by his writing enough to pick up Atonement and On Chesil Beach (both I super loved). I’ll probably read everything written by him at some point.

  2. Kay

    I have only read Atonement by McEwan, and really loved it. I haven’t tried anything else by the author though. I looked at his books at the bookstore many times, but by reading the first few pages I couldn’t find something that really grabbed my attention. Now I’ll know better than to give this one a try!

    P.S.: I love that you have a “booo!” tag!

  3. 08/13/2009

    @ Claire: Well, it just goes to show that reading is subjective and what works for one person will not necessarily work for another! 🙂 Like I said, I found the beginning of Atonement too slow for my tastes, but I did wind up appreciating the book and thought it was really quite interesting. But, I don’t think time will cause me to look more fondly on Amsterdam. I think the ideas could be interesting, I just thought McEwan’s approach was all too heavy-handed and lacked subtlety. You are the first person who I know who enjoyed On Chesil Beach, so I think I might just conclude that McEwan just isn’t for me.
    @ Kay: For me this was a whole book that did not grab my attention. I was willing to give it time to develop as I needed to with Atonement, but it wound up feeling very lazy to me in the end and incredibly monotonous. I really don’t know how to describe how the writing was boring, it just fell so flat for me. So much of the time while I was reading, I kept wondering why someone so dispassionate about music and the like (or who writes in such a way) would bother tackling them in a novella. It certainly made me wonder why I was bothering to read it!

  4. 08/13/2009

    I haven’t read this but am afraid McEwan generally isn’t for me. (I’ve tried Enduring Love, Atonement, Saturday and On Chesil Beach).

    When reading these books I didn’t feel suprised by where each story went, rather I was annoyed at the unlikely and predictably manipulative plot twists and turns.

  5. 08/13/2009

    @ Sarah: It sounds like you’ve given McEwan a fair shake – if you haven’t enjoyed the four books of his you’ve read, I think you’re quite right in saying he’s not for you! 😉 To be honest, I am partially willing to give him the cold shoulder from here on out because none of his other books really sound all that interesting to me. And as you say, I find him quite manipulative, but not in a skilled way, and that frustrates me as a reader.

  6. 08/14/2009

    Wow, I haven’t read any McEwan yet but I keep adding the books to my lists. Sounds like maybe this author isn’t for you (*slight understatement*).

  7. 08/14/2009

    @ Rebecca: Ha! Yes, I guess you’re right that McEwan is probably an author who just isn’t for me. To be fair, I do respect Atonement (even though it started very slowly for me), and think that book is a great accomplishment. But this one just really rubbed me the wrong way, apparently.

  8. 08/19/2009

    I hated this book with a passion. I thought it was total drivel and the ending was absolutely anti-climactic and absurd. Although I loved Atonement, I pretty much thought this book was a waste of paper. I agree completely with your assessment of it, and I gave it a really negative review as well. Not to mention that all of the characters in this book were boring, dry and far too contentious. A horrible book.

  9. 08/20/2009

    @ zibilee: Whew! I’m glad I’m not the only one who less than loves this book. I’m going to check out your review!

  10. 08/21/2009

    McEwan is not more me either. I thought Atonement was okay, but I’ve never been able to get anywhere with some of his other books. They’re all so dry. Absolutely not for me.

  11. 08/21/2009

    @ Christina: So glad you also feel McEwan is dry! I always find his books a struggle, though I did get into a groove with Atonement… but I just don’t personally feel like I need to keep reading his stuff from here on out.

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