Daniel’s review of Atonement > Likes and Comments

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message 1: by Kelly (last edited Jun 09, 2009 09:55AM) (new)

Kelly OK, but even if I accept this argument – and even though I made the argument myself, I'm not sure it holds water – I still don't want to read an entire novel that's simply average, even if it's intended to be.

I have to disagree with your conclusion. If you accept this argument... the novel is not at all intended to be average- it is a brilliant depiction of the mind of a scarred, emotional woman, one who never grew past this desperate moment in time, one who has written for a lifetime and never found the courage to be honest, really, even at the end. I disagree that Birony, at least, is not a fully realized, alive character. She breathes through every word, every structuring choice, every omission. Its an absolutely brilliant psychological study, as well as a commentary on the craft of writing. I will agree with you only that the ending may be seen as that of an "average" novel- but I think that's meant to reflect what is happening to the supposed author at the time, and is meant to break your heart, and with good reason.

As for not holding up to the classics- I think perhaps you may be expecting certain things in form and tone and loftiness that McEwan isn't there for. The modern novel is such a different beast altogether that it is hard to look for comparasions except by signs that may be nothing more than indications of culture, history and time. If you mean that McEwan's aims seem smaller, and more focused, then yes. His 'moment in time' structure enables him to do that- but I think that allows him fuller, deeper exploration. I mean, everyone has different perspectives on what makes "classic" lit. I think its difficult to have that argument.

(Sorry, I am a McEwan fan. I don't think that Atonement is his best- that honor goes to Enduring Love- but I still feel like I have to defend it. :))



message 2: by Daniel (last edited Jun 09, 2009 11:23AM) (new)

Daniel Kelly, thank you for the comments. I truly do feel like I'm missing something in my reading of "Atonement," given all the love it's received from intelligent readers and well-read critics. Maybe a second reading of the book, given the knowledge imparted in the last section, is required.

And perhaps "average" wasn't the right word, sounding too belittling. But do you think the characterizations of Cecilia, Robbie and the others in the book's novel-within-the-novel are purposely limited -- maybe flat is a better word, to use E.M. Forster's language -- to serve Briony's psychological needs? As we the readers never leave Briony's head for all of "Atonement," does that mean that every aspect of the book -- limitations and all -- are dictated by Briony's own self-delusions, justifications and failed bids for forgiveness? Is this a classic case of an unreliable narrator, in which we never get an objective depiction of any of the book's characters, but rather only depictions that serve Briony's own needs in seeking amends for her wrongs?


message 3: by Kim (new)

Kim Daniel, I agree with you. I wasn't sold on this. Nice review!


message 4: by Jessica (new)

Jessica I agree with you mostly. There were parts of it that felt quite real to me and others that did not--the muddle in the middle
overrated, in any case--


message 5: by Michelle (last edited Jun 09, 2009 08:28AM) (new)

Michelle Kim,



Love,
Michelle


message 6: by Kelly (last edited Jun 09, 2009 10:34AM) (new)

Kelly Hi Daniel, thanks for writing back to me, I appreciate it.

To start off, I'm a little confused- you wrote "Amsterdam" both in your reply and in the review once, and I assume that you meant to write "Atonement"? Amsterdam, although a lovely little McEwan novel, definitely isn't a sequel about Briony. :) But anyway, to the meat of your reply...

But do you think the characterizations of Cecilia, Robbie and the others in the book's novel-within-the-novel are purposely limited -- maybe flat is a better word, to use E.M. Forster's language -- to serve Briony's psychological needs?

The straight up answer to this question is yes. Briony was a 13 year old girl when this book took place, and so all she would have had was a 13 year year old girl's perceptions of things- that's one of the tragedies of the book. "Limited", yes. But do I think that Robbie and Cecelia are flat characters? I don't- I just think that we are required to use more context clues to figure out their inner feelings than we have to do with Briony- perhaps they feel flat in comparison with the depths of Briony's inner soul searching? My recollection of this novel gives me a very clear idea of who Cecelia and Robbie are- perhaps it is the way they are presented. Outwardly, by what they say and do, rather than inwardly. The only way we can ever truly see anyone. Perhaps that feels less satisfying to you? But then.. if they were presented inwardly, would they be any more reliable? And it seems like you have some issues with that.

Do you have a problem with the first person format in general? Because it seems like that's what you're expressing a little bit. Briony is incredibly self involved- what pre-teen/teenager isn't? And of course she's more interested, even now, all the years after this event, in what she possibly could have been thinking to justify what she did, than in what Robbie and Cecelia must have been feeling.

Is this a classic case of an unreliable narrator, in which we never get an objective depiction of any of the book's characters, but rather only depictions that serve Briony's own needs in seeking amends for her wrongs?

I mean, yes, again, but I don't see this as a negative thing. This is the point of the book (and to be fair, most of McEwan's writing)- the various perceptions of one single event, and how one person's inner life, totally seperated from the actuality of reality, can affect people that it has absolutely nothing to do with. McEwan is fascinated by the reasons people do horrible things, and the answer almost always shows people on a horribly, tragically different wavelength, and unable to adjust. There would be no way for Briony to write a totally objective description, and I don't know that I would want to read a version of this book where that was attempted- but I do think she has much less reason to lie, with the exception of the ending, and she tells us that she's lying about that. That's the thing, Briony always lets us know, in one way or another, when her younger version of herself or her writing it currently, is lying or hiding something. It isn't Atonement if you just make up a fantasy to please yourself, is it? So I don't know that all that much would have been changed in terms of the actual facts of the case. All there is is color.

I think perhaps that's why so many people get pissed off by the ending, because it feels like Briony has lied to us for the first time, and she won't finish her punishment. She won't face up to the ultimate consequences of what she's done, she wants so badly to never, ever think of it again. Which is why I love the way that they did the ending of the movie (spoilers, for those who haven't seen it!), where she admits /exactly/ what she's done, and how selfish it is of her to do it. The ending of the book asks, "Isn't this enough?, haven't I done enough?" and it seems like for most the answer is no.

It's possible that it is just that we both value different things in novels- because it seems like we agree, mostly, about what's going on, but you wanted more from it, and I am contented (from a story intent perspective) with what was given to me. And that's fine- it is all personal experience, (something I think McEwan would agree with). You don't have to feel like you missed something! It just didn't speak to you.


message 7: by Kimley (new)

Kimley I pretty much agree with you on this as well. Though I actually really enjoyed the first section of the book - thought the writing was well done and I was eager to see where he was going to go with it. But then the giant snore-fest of the second part was a big disappointment and the ending just felt really forced and gimmicky - sort of like an M. Night Shyamalan film...

Curmudgeons unite!


message 8: by Jessica (new)

Jessica I LOVED the first section. I really did think it brilliant.
The rest of it never lived up to that promise for me--


message 9: by Kelly (last edited Jun 09, 2009 10:49AM) (new)

Kelly Why did you find the second part boring? I'm curious. I've heard the ending part, you can see my response to that above, but I'd be curious about the middle parts that you didn't like.


message 10: by Jessica (new)

Jessica the middle part for me was the war section, and I simply didn't believe it. It felt researched and uninspired to me, particularly after the first part of the novel.
I don't recall that I had a problem with the ending.


message 11: by Jessica (last edited Jun 09, 2009 10:57AM) (new)

Jessica interestingly, there was a charge of plagiarism that involved the middle section. A nurse's wartime diary had been heavily consulted by McEwan but it wasn't believed that he credited her enough or that he changed the writing enough in the passages he 'borrowed.'
He was exonerated, but it showed, I thought, how far he was from his 'source,' that is, from his imaginative powers--


message 12: by Kelly (last edited Jun 09, 2009 11:08AM) (new)

Kelly the middle part for me was the war section, and I simply didn't believe it. It felt researched and uninspired to me, particularly after the first part of the novel.

Fair enough, but it is hard to write something in an overwhelming setting like that without giving those great events their due, you know? Something like WWII definitely forces you to look around a little, lest you get a bomb going off in your face. If he was to have any truth as to Briony's state of mind, he would have had to know what she was likely going through every day, too. I agree that he was maybe pulled a little far out of his points, but again, everyone feels the urge to genuflect to WWII. And if we're talking about psychological impact of things- aren't there a lot of war novels like that? Where you just stick to the every day details of things, just to get through the day? Briony probably wouldn't have had the luxury that she did to continue in that narrative, as she had in the first part. For me, I saw that as motivation for her choice to "go see" Cecelia and Robbie and try to fix what had happened- war gives you a good dose of reality. I guess I thought there was enough to keep me going towards the end, but is there less "magic" in the middle? Fair enough, again.

(Wow, that was a ramble, sorry.)


message 13: by Kimley (new)

Kimley For me, the war section just seemed cliched - your standard horrors of war, boys in the trenches, women at home trying to cope. There was nothing new here that I hadn't read a hundred times before.

Now, sure, you could say this is Briony's book and so it's her POV - supposed to reflect her weaknesses both in character and writing ability but it's still boring to read...

I think I also didn't like it because I was so enjoying the first part and then it switched so suddenly to something very dull.


message 14: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Kimley wrote: "For me, the war section just seemed cliched - your standard horrors of war, boys in the trenches, women at home trying to cope. There was nothing new here that I hadn't read a hundred times before...."

that's it. Exactly.


message 15: by Daniel (new)

Daniel Kelly, others: I have no idea why I keep writing "Amsterdam" rather than "Atonement." I guess I vaguely knew that McEwan also wrote a novel called "Amsterdam," though I have never read it, and keep mixing up the two titles. Fixing now, and more comments to come.


message 16: by Jessica (new)

Jessica I read Amsterdam.
I enjoyed it, listened to it on tape, which I recommend.


message 17: by Daniel (new)

Daniel Kelly, I really have no problem with novels told from any point of view -- first person, third person, first-person plural, whatever. (Well, second person didn't work so well for me in the one relatively recent novel I remember reading in that format, which I believe was by Tom Robbins. The book might have been more to blame than the point of view though. Heck, it never bothered me in the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books I read as a boy.)

I also have no problem with novels that fail to explicate their characters' interior lives. I recently read "Pnin," for example, and in that novel little light is shed on the titular character's internal thoughts and feelings, yet he still comes off as a complete, breathing, living person. And that's even within the confines of a novel with metafictional leanings. (So I guess that's not a problem for me either.)

It's really not the point of view, or how much time we spend inside the characters' heads. It's some other X factor, something in the writing that allows me, the reader, to imagine the characters living and existing beyond the margins of the book's pages. For me, this didn't happen in "Atonement." But it sounds like it did for you -- at least in the Briony's case, and perhaps for the other characters as well. (For me, I couldn't picture even Briony existing outside the confines of McEwan's book.) So what can I tell you? Maybe McEwan's writing, or at least this book, just didn't click for me, didn't touch my reptilian brain stem in the right way. Maybe it's the same reason I love the music of the Pixies and can't stand U2. They're both talented, accomplished bands, but the Pixies just hit something in me exactly the right way, while U2 annoys the crap out of me. Is that a fair analogy?


message 18: by Kelly (last edited Jun 09, 2009 12:48PM) (new)

Kelly They're both talented, accomplished bands, but the Pixies just hit something in me exactly the right way, while U2 annoys the crap out of me. Is that a fair analogy?

Yes, indeed. Exactly what I meant when I said, above, in my reply "And that's fine- it is all personal experience, (something I think McEwan would agree with). You don't have to feel like you missed something! It just didn't speak to you."

X factors are very hard to debate, and there's nothing anyone can do about that- part of what makes us all individuals. I'm sorry that this didn't speak to you, I hope that maybe another one of McEwan's novels will, if you decide to try him again. I join with Jessica in recommending Amsterdam. It is on a much smaller scale than Atonement or Enduring Love, but I think it is the most focused and piercing of all three, plus, parts of it are really darkly funny. He does seem to write either chamber novels about a few people, or a few people tied into sweeping, huge events. Not much in between. :) Depends on what you're in the mood for!


message 19: by Rose (new)

Rose Well, I'm glad you didn't put recommended by me. I'll still try to get to it, anyway, so we can compare notes.


message 20: by Daniel (new)

Daniel I definitely want you to read it, Rose, and would love to hear what you think. I'm guessing that, even if you don't love it, you'll still like it more than I did. You're slightly less curmudgeonly than I am.


message 21: by Trevor (new)

Trevor I think I liked this book a bit more than you did, but it is years now since I read it and can hardly remember anything about it at all. I would agree it is not his best. I didn't like Amsterdam at all, but really loved The Child In Time. And there was another I read set in Venice which I found far too disturbing. What I don't really like about McEwan, at least what I've read of him, is that there is always a momment, a turning point in the lives of his characters from which all else (before and after) gets its meaning. I find this quite unsatisfying most of the time as I struggle to believe life is like that and that puts me in the same place Daniel finds himself in in his review.

But an excellent and honest review and a fascinating discussion afterwards, thank you all.


message 22: by Jessica (new)

Jessica the Venice one must be 'The Comfort of Strangers,' from which a film was made. I've seen the film (disturbing, yes, with Christopher Walken at his finest) but haven't yet read the novel.


message 23: by Trevor (new)

Trevor That was it, I knew it had something to do with strangers, but was too lazy to look it up. I don't think I could watch the film, the book was challenging and graphic enough.


message 24: by Brad (last edited Jun 21, 2009 08:34AM) (new)

Brad Daniel wrote: "I truly do feel like I'm missing something in my reading of "Atonement," given all the love it's received from intelligent readers and well-read critics. Maybe a second reading of the book, given the knowledge imparted in the last section, is required...."

I had a similar experience to begin with, Daniel, and it took me many attempts to finish Atonement. But by the time I actually finished it I was converted, not to big "fan" status perhaps, but I do like it and I found myself surprisingly moved.

Any foray into metafiction is going to lead to comparisons with Nabokov, and rightly so, and McEwan doesn't pull it off as Vladimir does, but I found myself, despite the seeming "mediocrity" of the book, to be fascinated by Briony's narrative (a fine example, I think, of why her imaginings of Robbie's retreat at Dunkirk feels so cliched).

Excellent review, Mr. Curmudgeon. Thanks.


message 25: by Lawrence (new)

Lawrence Dear Daniel: I just finished this book and wrote up my own comment/review. Although I gave the book five stars, I agree with a lot of what you say. I had strong feelings about Briony and ultimately found her to be "amoral and idiotic". Would you mind reading my review which I posted today, October 6, 2009, in the five star section. Lawrence


notgettingenough I love the idea that McEwan can write inadequately and we can critically explain it away as a function of his principal character, the writer. Makes me think maybe I can take up fiction after all...

As for the writer's conceit, that his character - as an act of kindness, mark you - can, through a work of fiction, give Robby and Cecilia the life they should have had, these two people she has in effect killed with her own hands. Wow. McKewan: the writer as God....you really think so?

Note: comment based on having watched the film, book remains unread.


message 27: by Bets (new)

Bets i was also disappointed when i read the book because it was so widely acclaimed, and compared to classical literature, when it seems to be just above-average contemporary fiction.


message 28: by Wayne (new)

Wayne I first read McEwan's short stories which were startling.
Then I realised that all this book had was SHOCK value. McEwan actually had absolutely nothing to say about Human Reality.
His best work is "On Chesil Beach". Like most good books it is not written to a formula and says something real.
"Atonement" is a mess of a book.Which why it leaves many people confused.If McEwan did have an artistic aim with this book (which I doubt) he has certainly not achieved what he set out to do. Hence the multiple interpretations. Just read through the reviews. fascinating. The best ones are by people who admit they are confused.Some of the writing may be good but style isn't everything.
Read before or after a REAL classic work and it fails by contrast.People really DON'T LIKE someone criticising a book they LOVE. But go with your gut feeling.And stick to your guns.
A very strange man our Mr McE if he thinks a novel can compensate two dead people for their ruined lives. If THAT is what he is getting at .
In the final stage I wonder whether he has anything of value to say at all and, if he has, whether he can actually say it. He certainly didn't here.
A GOOD review, Daniel.
Cheers from Wayne,Sydney, Australia.


message 29: by Jessica (last edited Apr 23, 2013 09:18AM) (new)

Jessica Wayne, I like what you say about McEwan. I also came to him first by way of his stories and was so impressed/disturbed. I have read a couple of his novels (including Atonement--vastly overrated, I thought), none of which I loved. I agree that they are so very well written but don't amount to much: Amsterdam, The Innocent (of these, the second is the more memorable). I own Chesil Beach but haven't yet read it. I will. Thanks.


message 30: by Wayne (new)

Wayne Nice to hear from you, Jessica.
In Sydney next Tuesday,30 April, Ian McEwan is being interviewed on a 30 minute TV Show, Tuesday Night Book Club, which I am looking forward to.Although I know the interviewer will be treating him like a demi-god. Such is fame.!!!Anyway , I'm hoping I will get some understanding from it worth sharing.
Will be interested to hear what you think of Chesil Beach, Jess. Happy Reading.


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