I grabbed this book at Harvard Book Store back in January. I really loved On Chesil Beach so I thought I’d try another McEwan. Reading the back cover of Amsterdam, I thought the plot looked interesting – two friends come together at a former lover’s funeral and make a euthanasia pact. Ironically, it was knowing that information that I thought made the book less powerful than it could have been.
Clive Linley, a British composer, and Vernon Halliday, editor at a newspaper, attend Molly Lane’s funeral. Both men were past lovers of Molly, but are also quite good friends. Molly’s illness came on suddenly and she quickly lost her memory and ability to care for herself, which frightens the men. They make a pact that if either of them should face similar circumstances, the other will see to it that he is put out of his misery, ie euthanized. Had this point not been revealed on the back cover of the book, I think I would have felt differently about the novel. But knowing this information, the rest of the book was not all the surprising and I was a little disappointed at that. But, McEwan is of course a wonderful writer and the story tells itself in an elegant way.
There are some very interesting ideas in the novel, even if the story line was a little anti-climactic for me. Firstly, I found it very interesting that Molly plays such an important role in the novel, although she is alive only in little glimpses and she isn’t explored in a great deal of depth. Friendship – both wholesome and perverted – is also a major theme of the novel. Clive and Vernon are friends who love to hate one another and along the way their relationship takes many interesting turns. Molly’s relationships with both men – and many others – are also pivotal pieces of the novel.
Moral behavior and making ethical decisions are also major themes of Amsterdam. Aside from the moral dilemma of euthanasia at the heart of the story, the men face many other ethical decisions and behave in various moral and immoral ways. Watching the ethical situations unravel and seeing their decisions play out makes the novel that much more interesting and introspective.
Amsterdam was not my favorite novel and isn’t my favorite McEwan story either. I felt that the surprise of the plot wasn’t all the surprising but that the variety of themes incorporated into the story made the novel still a worthwhile and interesting read.