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Book #47: Atonement

What to do with this novel?

Atonement is a rich, emotional story with outstanding characters, and Ian McEwan is a fantastic storyteller. But, yet, portions of this story bothered me…a lot.

I’ve mentioned this in prior posts about Atonement, but the novel, at times, feels like it was written with Hollywood in mind. Certain turning points in the story are too perfect, too clean and convenient, and that puts a stain on the story for me.

But I’ll get to more of that later. Let’s focus on the good stuff first.

The main gist of the plot is this: A young imaginative girl, Briony, witnesses a strange incident between her older, teenage sister (Cecilia) and a teenage boy (Robbie). Briony’s imagination—which serves her well in the future as a successful novelist—gets the best of her as a kid.

Throw a love letter from Robbie to Cecilia with one nasty word into the mix—a letter that Briony gets her hands on—and all hell breaks loose. Briony accuses Robbie of a dreadful crime—a mistake she ends up regretting and seeking “atonement” for throughout her life.

The entire novel is divided into three sections: The first with Briony as a young girl during the time period of the initial “incident”; the second with Briony, Robbie, and Cecilia as they enter adulthood; the third, by far the shortest, takes place at a family reunion in 1999, when Briony has become an established, successful novelist.

The strongest part of the story is the opening section. I felt like the second section started to lose me a little bit–Robbie is away at war. And the third section pulled me back in, just out of curiosity to see how it all ends up. But the first 100 pages of Atonement is the novel’s brightest spot.

If I had one word to describe Atonement it would be this: pretty. Atonement is a pretty novel. And I don’t say that in a condescending, pat-your-head type of way.

Take this paragraph, for instance:

“Finally he spoke the three simple words that no amount of bad art or bad faith can ever quite cheapen. She repeated them, with exactly the same slight emphasis on the second word, as though she were the one to say them first. He had no religious belief, but it was impossible not to think of an invisible presence or witness in the room, and that these words spoken aloud were like signatures on an unseen contract.”

Isn’t that just pretty?

Ian McEwan’s prose is nearly flawless. The story itself has such a nostalgic feel to it, like you’re peeking through a fuzzy, dream-like looking glass watching your grandmother or grandfather as a child.

Maybe it was just that the elderly Briony, toward the end of Atonement, reminded me a lot of the elderly Iris Chase from The Blind Assassin, but I felt like those two novels had a lot in common: there’s an element of forbidden love, there’s a question of the narrator’s reliability, there’s a significant plot twist, and the timeline of the novels are even similar. I’m sure I’m not the first person who has drawn parallels between Atonement and The Blind Assassin.

But, then, I must bring up a point of contention—an issue with Atonement that really bothered me. Without spoiling plot, I’ll simply say that some turning points in the story are just too “Hollywood”—too perfectly timed.

In creating tension between Cecilia, Robbie, and Briony, McEwan seems to take the most obvious path, the path of least resistance. There’s one particular MAJOR turning point in Atonement in which Robbie hands the wrong version of a letter to Briony.

The letter he intended to send sat next to the one he picked up by mistake. As a result, the letter he mistakingly gives to Briony contains vulgar, sexual language directed at Cecilia. This short paragraph changes the lives of all three of the main characters forever.

But couldn’t McEwan explore this tension in a less obvious way? It’s like a scene from a second-rate sitcom: Character A writes a passion-filled love letter to Character B. Character A rewrites the letter, more subdued this time, to Character B.

Character A places both letters on his oak desk. Now, as the camera zooms in to a tight shot of both letters, we’re on the edge of our seat as we realize (oh no!) Character A has picked up the wrong letter!

That’s the one with the bad word! Oh no! Crazy hijinks ensue and Character B’s mom finds out and Character A gets a restraining order.

You know you’ve seen a sitcom like that, right? Wasn’t that in Full House or Growing Pains or The Cosby Show or Family Ties or…am I dating myself with all the 80s and 90s sitcoms here?

That’s Ian McEwan. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

That wasn’t the only plot-changer that seemed a little clichéd to me, but it was the one that stood out the most. If McEwan’s goal was to write a novel destined for a Hollywood screenplay, he was successful, since the movie was made into an Academy Award winner.

Atonement doesn’t have a lot of negatives, but the ones it does have, the plot issues I explained above—those are a pretty big deal in my humble and inconsequential opinion.

In all this is a great book–one I would recommend. The plot issues I pointed out might not bother you a bit. And, as always, I’m fully willing to admit I might be missing something. But that’s just my take.

I think I’ll watch the movie. And I might even read the book again one day. Again, I’m just having a hard time describing my conflicted feelings about Atonement. I really loved the story, but it lacked in many ways as well. So goes literature, I guess.

Other Stuff

The Opening Line: “The play – for Which Briony had designed the posters, programs and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crêpe paper – was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch.”

The Meaning: Read the memorable line section below. Basically, the meaning of this story is perfectly described in the title: atonement. It’s Briony’s attempt to atone for a horrible mistake she made as a child.

Highlights: McEwan’s writing is so good it makes me want to jump high in the air and shout happy words. Great story.

Lowlights: The outstanding story is, in my opinion, marred by some weak, even cliched, turning points in the plot. Too predictable. Too easy. Too Hollywood.

Memorable Line: “How can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.”

Final Thoughts: I’m conflicted about Atonement. If I had to grade it, I’d probably give the novel an 85–a solid B. I would read Atonement again, and I would even recommend it to you guys. But if you’re like me, just be prepared to experience some frustration at certain turning points in the novel.

19 Comments Post a comment
  1. You will have earned 10 million brownie points if you intentionally reviewed Atonement today because it’s Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. My brownie points are worth no actual brownies. But this novel keeps popping into my head when I see anything on “Yom Kippur: Day of Atonement.”


    September 25, 2012
    • I had no idea! Ha. Crazy coincidence. I’ve had a lot of luck like that on this blog. Like when I happened to start reading Infinite Jest and posted about DFW every day during the time when his last novel, The Pale King, came out. I didn’t plan it that way.


      September 26, 2012
      • Technically I guess Yom Kippur started at sundown yesterday, but whatever. It was close enough to be in my brain and make me laugh. I’m loving the blog! 🙂


        September 26, 2012
  2. Teresa #

    Like you, I’m not a fan of contrived plots (or sitcoms). I read the first 100 pages, saw the plot twist coming, guessed the outcome and have now put the book aside for a week or two until I forgive it. I may well end up liking the book, but right now I just need some space from it. (Hahaha).

    Need to rave about Midnight’s Children, though. Wow. 40 pages remaining. Stellar. I travel a lot and it is a wonderful book to listen to while driving – and then look back over once I’ve landed in my hotel. It was written with a poet’s sensibility and meant to be read out loud. It’s taken me 6 weeks to get through in that fashion, but well worth the hours spent with it.


    September 25, 2012
    • Something to look forward to then? Good news.


      September 26, 2012
  3. I too had mixed feelings over Atonement. Certainly the first half was the strongest and beautifully written too, but I felt somewhat conned by the ending. It somehow seemed too deliberately clever. On a positive note, I loved On Chesil Beach, a short but lovely read.


    September 28, 2012
    • I read Atonement about 8 years ago, and I still feel betrayed when I think about the ending! I agree that it’s beautifully written, and that the story certainly drew me in – but then it spat me out. One could argue that it’s only a very talented author who can elicit such a strong and enduring reaction to a novel – but I prefer to feel I can trust an author when I’m immersing myself in his world.


      September 6, 2013
  4. Agreed…the plot twists are very neat and tidy. So much so that when I read of Robbie dreamily typing out his lusty letter, smiling to himself, and then setting it aside, never intending anyone to ever read it…I knew it would fall into the hands of someone in the family. Nonetheless and enjoyable story. I was a bit disappointed with the imperfect atonement, but I suppose that is the point. Few wrongs are ever completely righted. The story is Briony’s best faith attempt at atonement.


    February 27, 2014
  5. Reblogged this on Claudia Vrabie and commented:
    I loved the movie and I can not wait to read a book! Cheers!


    December 2, 2014

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