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Atonement by Ian McEwan

August 28, 2012

I’d heard such great things about this book so when I saw it at a little used bookstore by my house, I picked it up. I really liked McEwan’s On Chesil Beach and Amsterdam so I was sure that Atonement, with all its amazing reviews, would be my new favorite. But I was disappointed –  I didn’t really like this book at all.

We meet Briony Tallis, a 13 year old aspiring writer who is crafting a play to be performed with her newly-arrived cousins. We watch her struggle with rehearsals and  her cousin Lola’s strong personality, knowing that Briony wants this play to be perfect for her brother’s arrival. In the meantime, we meet Cecilia, Briony’s sister, who is unsure of where to go and what to do now that she’s returned from college unmarried. And then there’s Robbie, the housekeeper’s son who is going to medical school on the Tallis family’s dime. And while we watch these characters go about their day, McEwan never lets us forget that BRIONY IS GOING TO COMMIT A CRIME. He wacks us over the head with that so many times, but when her “crime” is playing out, I was completely confused – what McEwan had played up as the crime of the century seemed to me a whole lot more like a child’s mistake.

Briony’s “crime” immediately causes some despair and then we skip ahead a few years to see how her terrible crime has really just completely ruined everything. Robbie’s off fighting a war and writing sappy letters to Cecilia. Cecilia is working as a nurse and writing cheesy letters to Robbie. And boy is Briony taking things hard. She’s punished herself by forcing herself into a career (huh?) and now she’s ready to make amends! Oh joy!

Then we skip ahead a whole bunch more years and Briony’s an old woman celebrating her birthday with family and friends. And we see that things might not have been what we originally thought. And although some revelations at the end of the novel were surprising and added depth to the story, it wasn’t enough to rescue this book for me. CeciliaAndRobbie was maybe the cheesiest book couple I’ve ever met and McEwan overwriting of Briony’s “crime” was just crazy to me.

I won’t give up on McEwan quite yet though – the other books I’ve read by him have been really great, so I hold out hope.

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