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!