Friday, February 25, 2011

Atonement by Ian McEwan

What's to be written about Atonement that hasn't been said or written before? Probably nothing, but I still had to throw my hat into the ring on this book.

First, an admission. It's been sitting on my shelf unread for something like seven years. I was neck-deep in Yahoo book discussion groups when the buzz about this book came around. I specifically remember Les talking about it, and while I wanted to read it, I haven't actually plucked it off my shelf until now. It's almost a shame to have waited so long, but then again, by not flowing with the hype at the time, I came to this novel with something of a fresh outlook. I still had expectations and I was interested to see where I would fit in the love/hate continuum, but there wasn't too much pressure to read it or love it. This one seems to be quite the polarizing novel with polarizing characters.

The verdict? I LOVED IT. I adored it for many of the same reasons that I was so bowled over by the other McEwan novel I've read and reviewed, On Chesil Beach. I'm hesitant to provide a plot summary for such a widely read book, so if you're looking for a top-notch synopsis and a thoughtful review, go over and check out Ana's writing at Things Mean a Lot. I'll keep it short and sweet when I say that this is a sweeping family and historical drama led by the 13-year-old Briony Tallis, her sister Cecilia, and the family housekeeper's son, Robbie. Briony witnesses a flirtation...the beginnings of something between Robbie and Cecelia, and it sets off a chain of events that are quite like watching a train derail.

What I love most about McEwan's writing, this novel and On Chesil Beach included, is his grasp of the intangible. McEwan manages to put thoughts, emotions, and nuance into words in such a way that it takes my breath away. There were times reading Atonement that I literally caught myself holding my breath because the words on the page were so effortlessly effective. So evocative of the characters' internal lives. The atmosphere and expectations in this book just soar!

This is a short passage, but it was one I took the time to highlight in my manic reading. It's just one in a long line of moments that McEwan grasps the intangible with beautiful words:
Briony slowed to a walking pace, and thought how he must hate her for interrupting him in the library. And though it horrified her, it was another entry, a moment of coming into being, another first: to be hated by an adult. Children hated generously, capriciously. It hardly mattered. But to be the object of adult hatred was an initiation into a solemn new world. It was promotion.
Wow! Right? I just thought to myself, everyone has probably felt this way--this shift--at least to some extent. But I never would've been able to describe it this way, with this much economy and clarity.

For all these years I've managed to avoid spoilers that would give away the end of this novel. I did know there was some sort of twist coming, and I actually guessed the twist, and I want to address it WITHOUT SPOILERS. To be short and sweet about the whole thing: I thought it was fitting. That doesn't make it any less wrenching or affecting, but I thought it was fitting. If you have thoughts about this facet of the book, please share in your comments. Just provide a spoiler warning.

There were times in this novel that I positively wanted to strangle some of the characters (hi, Briony!), and there were times I just wanted to hug some others (Robbie!). Simply put, it's just a breathtaking, finely-crafted, beautifully written novel. In fact, I would count it among my all-time favorites. It was a treat to read this book, and it's certainly one I'll re-read in a few years' time. If you're holding off like I was, I would urge you to go ahead and take the plunge. It's worth it!

25 comments:

  1. This was the second book I ever blogged about! Here's what I had to say about the ending:


    The "Afterword" of this novel (set in 1999) was at first something between disappointing and heartwrenching, but even though it was somewhat of a shock--seeming to hit me in the pit of my stomach--it was, at the same time, so right; it's as if I knew that was the way it was, the way it had to be. It had an air of inevitability, of finality, and a ring of truth. You finally see that the novel itself is the "atonement" spoken of in the title, and that Briony has spent her entire life working towards it.

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  2. I LOVE this book. It's one of my all time favourite novels. You are so right about Ian McEwan's writing. It's beautiful!

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  3. A new book for me but I am certainly enjoying the comments and the review.

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  4. Kathy, I felt the same way about the afterword. Quite honestly it made me look at Briony in a more positive light--to be working toward that atonement.

    Misha, I'm 2 for 2 with McEwan. I also have Saturday on my shelves, so when I'm ready for another engrossing read, maybe I'll enlist that one. :)

    Thanks, Mystica!

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  5. I seem to be in the minuscule minority about the ending. I loved the book until the end, but the end ruined the book for me. It wasn't just the plot twist that changed it for me--it was how McEwan wrote it. The attitude it was written in, for me, seemed disrespectful to the reader. I felt like it (the attitude of the 'twist') was coming directly from the author instead of from Briony. While I can understand how making the reader personally feel what the characters might feel could be considered an amazing success, I didn't view it that way.

    I liked the movie much more than the book for this reason. I think the film succeeded in telling the story faithfully without insulting the reader/viewer. It was my first McEwan, and I honestly don't know if I'll give him another shot. :(

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  6. yay! So glad you loved it too :D

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  7. Melody, I can certainly see how you could perceive it that way. I think some of the foreshadowing (Balham Station) is part of what prepared and tipped me off and made me OK with it. I am really curious to see how the movie handles it. I've already warned Chuck that we WILL be watching it soon. :) IF you decide to give McEwan another chance, I would definitely recommend On Chesil Beach. It's a very short volume, and I think it's made of the parts of McEwan's writing you seem to have liked in the first three parts of Atonement before the darned ending. :)

    Yay, Ana! So so sooo good!

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  8. Atonement is one of my all time favorites (and the only McEwan book I've ever read, as I'm afriad to read another one by him because my expecations are just too high)!
    Stephanie
    www.stephanieswrittenword.com

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  9. If you like subtle books which examine feelings, you might like to try Elizabeth Bowen's Death of the Heart, if you haven't already read it. It's a bit dated, but crops up from time to time in university literature classes. Some of her observations blew me away. Such as (I'm paraphrasing here, but I think I got the feeling right) -- Spring comes at the end of a winter's day when the ice softens and the light changes. Or words to that effect. It's one of those phrases and ideas that has stuck in my head for years. Thanks for the thoughtful review of Atonement. I wasn't knocked out by it, but maybe it's worth re-reading it to see if I've changed my mind about it. Canadian Chickadee

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  10. If you like subtle books which examine feelings, you might like to try Elizabeth Bowen's Death of the Heart, if you haven't already read it. It's a bit dated, but crops up from time to time in university literature classes. Some of her observations blew me away. Such as (I'm paraphrasing here, but I think I got the feeling right) -- Spring comes at the end of a winter's day when the ice softens and the light changes. Or words to that effect. It's one of those phrases and ideas that has stuck in my head for years. Thanks for the thoughtful review of Atonement. I wasn't knocked out by it, but maybe it's worth re-reading it to see if I've changed my mind about it. Canadian Chickadee

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  11. It's been a while since I read this book, but I remember feeling that the ending ruined a fabulous book for me.

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  12. Whew, for a second there I thought you didn't like it but I'm so glad that you did :) It's quite a breathtaking book.

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  13. I read this one a while before the book came out (a few years ago) and absolutely LOVED it. I loved the ending and I agree that it fit. It was what should have happened, you know? So good....glad you liked it!

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  14. I love everything about the plot of this book, including the twist which I of course discovered by reading the end long before I read the book properly. In theory it's a perfect book with a perfect plot, and I seriously am 100% in love with the final twist. But I hated the writing and couldn't read the book all the way through.

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  15. This is the only book by McEwan I can say I safely liked.

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  16. Although this is my favorite novel by Ian, I still want to slap Briony. All this years later. Everyone in my circle wanted to say she was an innocent girl; I say innocent, my ass. She ruined others' lives, and I'm still mad at her.

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  17. I was like you - I had had this on my shelf for ages before I finally picked it up, but man was I glad I did.

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  18. I've had this on my shelf for years, too, and haven't read it yet! Glad that doesn't make it any less amazing or impactful. Great review (par for the course), and I'm glad you enjoyed it so much!

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  19. I'm so glad you enjoyed it. I made the mistake of seeing the movie which I fear must have spoiled the book for me. But I will still read it one day.

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  20. Hi there.

    I actually prefer reading novels outside of the hype. So I never rush towards bestsellers or the top 40.

    Anyway, you make me want to read this now. Your points about the writing has grabbed my attention.

    I saw the film, unfortunately, so might have to wait even longer, to come to it fresher.

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  21. I've got to admit that I know absolutely nothing about this book. This author is on my to read list but sadly I've never given him a try. I really should pick this one up...great review!

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  22. LOL, Stephanie! I do that often--fear an author's other books won't live up. I've done this with Paul Auster. *sigh*

    Canadian Chickadee, thanks for the Elizabeth Bowen recommendation. I haven't read any of her work, but I've always had her on my radar. This might be just the place to start!

    Kathy, I'm sorry the ending killed it for ya. You're certainly not alone in that observation. That's why I say this book can be quite polarizing. It seems to be a love or hate.

    Loooved it, Teacher/Learner!

    Allie, agreed! A very poetic, fitting ending, in my opinion. Can't wait to watch the film!

    Jenny! My mouth is wide open! lol I guess I can understand how McEwan's writing wouldn't be for everyone. He is quite the rambly details guy. However, that helped me get immersed. I felt like I knew the characters and the landscape very well. Maybe too well when it came to bloody war stuff.

    Kailana, what others have you read and disliked? Just curious since I started and did not finish Saturday years ago. I've also read iffy reviews of Solar.

    Bellezza, she was a huge turd. Quite the spiteful little shit, in fact. Though, I did forgive her quite a bit when she got older. I didn't think I would!

    Amen, Kerry!

    Thanks, Aarti! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did when you get around to it. I would loooove to read your review of it. :)

    Kathleen, I thought about just going ahead and watching the movie, but I'm really glad I held off and read the book first. So good! Now I'm ready to watch the film.

    Monica, I hope you can shake off the movie quickly and get to the book. The writing is just soooo yummy.

    Samantha, read it now while you know nothing!!! I can imagine it's best experienced that way. :D

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  23. I loved both of these books as well (I read Atonement first) but have yet to bring myself to read anything else by him, as I've heard so many negative reactions to his other books that I've been scared off.

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  24. I too held off on reading this book because of all the hype around it. But I have heard so many great things about McEwan that this book has always been in the back of my mind as something that I know I just have to pick up. Reading your sparkling review has inspired me to at least pick up the book.

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  25. I have such a crush on McEwan, I'm scared to read anything else by him. But I must MUST! move Saturday up the list to first quarter 2012.

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