Atonement

by Ian McEwan
ages: adult
First sentence: “The play — for which Briony had designed posters, programs and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crepe paper — was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss breakfast and lunch.”

Ah, modern classics. Pages and pages of well-written, often beautiful, always complex exposition. Character development through psychological intricacies, with much telling, little showing. Pretentious in their understanding of human nature, but little or no plot to hang any of their characters on.

They bore me to tears.

Actually, I’m sounding harsher than I mean to; I did like aspects of Atonement — the idea that one person (though I’m having a hard time picturing her as 13; more like 9 or 10) can misinterpret situations, let their imagination run away with them and as a result affect many lives because of that is intriguing — but I had a hard time connecting with anyone. I also admit that I’m impatient (perhaps this is a negative side-effect of reading too much YA?) with books that take so long (more than 100 pages in set up) to get going, and then spent the other 2/3 of the story spinning around unraveling anything. I would have appreciated it if McEwan was more forthright in his writing, rather than leaving me to dig out plot points amidst all the extraneous thinking, musing, and suffering.

It was wonderfully written, though. I just wish it would have been more plot or character driven. Then again: it’s the same problem I have with Dickens. I’m just not a good judge of literary talent.

Buy it at: Amazon, Powell’s, or your local independent bookstore.

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16 thoughts on “Atonement

  1. Well darn it, I LOVED that book. However, when I read it a few years ago, I had never heard of the author or seen any reviews, so I had no expectations one way or the other. That *had* to make a difference. The surest way to kill my interest in a book is knowing that it won a prize, or that everyone and their sister is reading it. (It's embarrassing how susceptible to reverse psychology I am.)

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  2. I felt the exact same way. In fact, there's a very angry review back in my archives somewhere with pretty much the same complaint: the prose is amazing but the plot sucked. I'm not eager to try more McEwan.

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  3. Julie, I think this one ended up on my TBR list because you loved it. But that was 4 years ago, when it first came out. I had checked it out of the library then, and I'm sure if I had actually gotten around to reading it then, I would have had a different reaction. Part of me is sad that I didn't, becaus I, too, am very susceptible to reverse psychology… 🙂

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  4. I got the impression that McEwan was consciously mimicking Virginia Woolf's style here, and it did tend to bog the story down. I found it frustrating. Every time it looked like something big was going to happen, he'd backtrack and dump a ton of inconsequential details on the reader.

    The ending bothered me, too.

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  5. I have to agree with Julie. This is one of my favorite books! That being said, I know it's not for everyone. And maybe you would enjoy the movie more. I thought it was increidbly well done and was able to focus a little more on plot than on the psychology of the characters.

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  6. I watched the movie and then I read the book. I really loved the movie, which motivated me to read the book. But for me, it is one of those rare cases where the movie surpassed the book. The book would probably be okay to read in a class setting, but it is not exactly an “easy” read; very wordy.

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