Annalisa's Reviews > Atonement

Atonement by Ian McEwan
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Aug 19, 08

bookshelves: book-club, chick-lit, movies, literary, favorites, historical-fiction
Recommended for: book club
Read in March, 2008, read count: 2

There are so many angles and perceptions to consider in this book. Sometimes the end can make a book and that is certainly the case here where the story is left open for interpretation. This is a book that leaves you thinking and considering, making up your own conclusions--and strong enough characters to make you want to.

The first few chapters I did find my mind wandering through lengthy descriptions (I'll call it beautiful, poetic scenery), and yet that scenery set a lackadaisical feel vital to the innocence and peace of that opening day. It's not just the easy-going feel of pre-war life McEwan was portraying. On a second read, I find a strain, a desire to understand every motive and action. And in those details I find sadness that life never moved on. It was played over and over again trying to find meaning and purpose to each detail. The slowness is painstaking analysis. There is a reason for the meticulous care with which each detail is described and the read well worth the persistence to the end.

Even from the beginning I was intrigued with the story and found the characters compelling. I just loved Briony's capricious character, her innocent yet eloquently advanced mind. I could despise the nosy little sister and sympathize with the fearful inactive girl all in one breath. I could hate Paul's conceit and Lola's pleas for attention and understand the muteness all the same. But mostly I could sympathize and relate to Robbie and Cecilia as likable characters, wanting to add more time to their brief, interrupted interactions. I found myself ever-fearful for the end and therefore could not put the book down.

Spoilers in my analysis to death.
Despite Briony's foreshadowing (saying she would rewrite the fountain scene from all perspectives), I did not suspect the end. I expected the separation but not the invention of this whole story. Because of the story in a story format, you can interpret the few authentic scenes anyway you like and not take her word for any of it. That is what I love about the story, particularly on a second read, that I can question motives assigned to characters instead of take it for face value. At one point reading Robbie's thoughts I considered the layers: Ewan writing Briony writing Robbie and paused in awe at McEwan's talent.

Because of the layers, McEwan has the unique opportunity to add insight and symbolism, even study questions as commentary. Take Briony's comment when relieved to see Robbie at Cecilia's that Robbie's death would have been "outlandish, against all odds" and would have made no sense. Or the letter from the editor telling her the story was incomplete: "how might [her misunderstanding:] affect the lives of the two adults?" And while vivid her descriptions of light and shade she should create "light and shade within the narrative itself." To which you can't help but wonder about light and shade in the story and characters. In what other novel can the author analyze his own work and insert his own cues for study?

I was confused at the drastic abbreviation of Robbie's war tour--though I enjoyed considering the shrapnel as a physical expression of his hidden wound. It was so obvious why the section quit there, but I couldn't believe it ended there; I had to hold out hope however thin the thread. I thought Briony's atonement would come as a nurse on duty, and I held my breath waiting for the improbable meeting. Her interaction with the dying French boy showed how much she wanted that redemption from Robbie by consoling and listening to what cannot be fixed. How she longed for closure with him.

I doubt Robbie hated Briony. In her self-deprecation her interpretation is harsh. I think exasperation at a nosy child whom you adore but all of a sudden can't approach because her vivid imagination has turned to fear is sufficient emotion. I liked Robbie enough to think he could have forgiven her. If anything he was the one who was understanding and forgiving while Cecilia was ready to throw out her family to show her commitment to Robbie. I think Cecilia and Robbie were on the verge of forgiving Briony, but Briony could not allow herself to believe so without diminishing her guilt. She states "neither Briony nor the war had destroyed" their love. Even though she says so about her made-up gift of an ending, can't she see some redemptive power for herself, even in the "bleakest realism"?

I was so confused at the unexpected way the reunion scene between Robbie and Celia. It was so implausible and awkward and I wondered how the story had gotten off course and how Robbie had gotten there from France. His reaction was not anything like I expected, that after everything he had been through, he could still hold that much hate for Briony. And yet that was its intention. On a second read, it's one of my favorite parts as she gives us a glimpse of the verbal rebut she so longed for and some of the best layered meanings. I love how her novel sprouted from a desire to amend, but offered as a response to Robbie's invented request: "She knew what was required of her...a new draft, an atonement."

While Briony should take culprit for the loss of several years, she can't for their entire lives, for the years fate and the war stole away. And she can't even take full credit for those years. It was not her "crime" but her interpretation of one that fueled the problem. She spent her life in remorse, letting her decision shape her life and self worth. I think she more than paid her debt for what was a misunderstanding, a mistake, not cruel revenge. She got caught up in her perception and forced facts to fit her assumptions--ones she full-heartedly believed.

It is Lola unwilling to admit her part in the sexual encounter that should be atoning. Paul with his unrepentant spirit that should atone for another man paying for his crime. And even her mother making the improbable leap from inappropriate love letter to assault to break a servant's son connection with her daughter. Surely, she is just as guilty but seems unwillingly to accept her part in losing relationships with both her daughters. Briony is the only one in this story willing to atone for the tragedy. I didn't find her silence at the wedding cowardice: what good would it have served to ruin yet another couple's happiness? Her appearance was sufficient.

I wish Cecilia were more vocal the night they waited for his return. Sure the social class and unacceptable library behavior restrained her, but I wanted passion as proof of her love. Her silence annoyed and confused me as much as Briony's self-righteous witness angered me. But despite her hesitation that night, considering Cecilia's drastic reaction to her family, I want to believe the relationship must have been long-term, more serious. I'd like to think as her atonement Briony was as hard on herself as possible. I want to think that instead of unrequited love there was secret love undiscovered away from home but unable to pass inquisitive eyes. It doesn't atone, but it makes it less severe.

Briony's initial reaction to the fountain scene was that Robbie was proposing marriage. It could be accurate that Briony happened upon a lover's quarrel: Cecilia wanted to keep the relationship hushed from her parents and when Robbie was too personal in broad daylight she snapped. The letter could have been a joke from a guy asking for a moment alone with his girlfriend and in it his hesitance to jump from playful to committed. The story invented, while the most probable, was the most severe option she could conjure up and not the one I wanted to believe. I know I'm grasping at straws, but I want to believe Briony was wrong. The beauty of the story is I can.

The fact that I cared enough about the characters to want that for them, to simmer over it after I closed the book, reluctant to have it end, testifies to the power of the story. Despite my longing, I wouldn't necessarily consider the story of Robbie and Cecilia a complete tragedy. If one had survived to grieve and hate then yes, but to have such intense love (to have "a reason for life" as Cecilia put it) and be reunited after a short time gives their lives meaning and purpose and only makes it tragic for Briony left to regret the consequences of her rash judgment without ever hope of reconciliation. There in lies the tragedy: in a girl's life altered, not in the love story.
Some of my favorite quotes:
It wasn't only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you. And only in a story could you enter there different minds and show how they had a equal value. That was the only moral a story need have.
The cost of oblivious daydreaming was always this moment of return, the realignment with what had been before and now seemed a little worse.
(Robbie of meeting Cecilia) It would be worse, but he still wanted it. he had to have it. He wanted it to be worse.
Every now and then quite unintentionally someone taught you something about yourself.
(Robbie & Cecilia uttering each other's names) It sounded like a new word--the syllables remained the same, the meaning was different.
(Briony on guilt) How quite refined the methods of self-torture, invading the beads of detail into an eternal loop, a rosary to be fingered for a lifetime.
Memories--bleached colorless through overuse.
With the clarity of passion
A person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn and not easily mended.
She was the sort of girl who lived in her thoughts.
It was common enough to see so much death and want a child, common therefore human, and he wanted it all the more. When the wounded were screaming, you dreamed of sharing a little house somewhere, of an ordinary life, a family line, connection.
Now was her chance to proclaim in public all the private anguish and purge herself of all that she had done wrong. Before the altar of this most rational of churches.
To Briony it appeared her life was gong to be lived in one room without a door.
What she felt was more like homesickness though there was no source for it, no home.
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Quotes Annalisa Liked

Ian McEwan
“It wasn't only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you.”
Ian McEwan, Atonement

Ian McEwan
“A person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn and not easily mended.”
Ian McEwan, Atonement

Ian McEwan
“There did not have to be a moral. She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive. It wasn't only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding, above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you. And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had an equal value. That was the only moral a story need have.”
Ian McEwan, Atonement

Ian McEwan
“A story was a form of telepathy. By means of inking symbols onto a page, she was able to send thoughts and feelings from her mind to her reader's. It was a magical process, so commonplace that no one stopped to wonder at it.”
Ian McEwan, Atonement

Ian McEwan
“It was not generally realized that what children mostly wanted was to be left alone.”
Ian McEwan, Atonement


Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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Theresa Oh My! Can I be in your Lit. class? The knowledge and way you put it. You rock, Annalisa! I loved this book. Reading your comments brought the tears again. I saw that your comments on this right after I finished the last famous book. I thought about how after I read Atonement, I didn't want to put it down. With my last book, I was more than ready to put it down.


message 2: by Annalisa (last edited Aug 22, 2008 09:13PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Annalisa Is it any wonder I majored in English for how much I love to dissect a book? :) This was a good deterrent for me, especially since the writing is so good. And it's my second time reading this year. I'm shocked you watched a rated R movie! JK, I own it if you ever want to borrow it.


message 3: by Tatiana (last edited Mar 24, 2010 03:06PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tatiana I LOVE this book! But I have to say, I am not as understanding of Briony as you are, I never forgave her.


Annalisa Tatiana, I hated her the first half of the book, but by the end, I really did feel bad for her. If she had been punished, I would have thought, "good, the little brat deserved it," but she lost her sister and ruined hers and Robbie's life and never got a chance to make amends. She changed from capricious to coward overnight. I think getting with something can sometimes be the worst punishment.


Shayantani Das Wow, you described it so well Annalisa:)


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