Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Atonement is a story about love, lust, coming of age, and the danger that follows an imagination run wild. The plot's fulcrum is a dinner party held in 1930's England by the aristocratic Tallis family to welcome home their eldest, Leon. We view the events through the eyes of Briony Tallis, the precocious 13-year-old youngest child and wannabe writer. Just before the dinner party starts, Briony accidentallyonpurpose interrupts her older sister Cecilia having a moment (that may or may not be sexual in nature) with Robbie Turner, the son of the family's housekeeper and a longtime friend of the family. Due to a previous mishap, Briony has read a rather personal (and accidentally over-graphic [long story, think two versions of a letter and one not meant for public eyes]) letter that Robbie wrote to Cecilia. With these events set in motion, Briony becomes convinced that Robbie is to blame hours later when a rape occurs on the grounds and her cousin Lola is the victim. Lola was caught unawares and, with the darkness and heightened emotions, is moderately uncertain of (and uncomfortable revealing) the culprit, but Briony's confidence in Robbie's guilt is enough to persuade Lola and send Robbie to prison. The story picks up during World War II. Cecilia is a nurse, Briony has started training to become a nurse (to everybody's surprise), Robbie has been released from prison to fight in the war, Robbie and Cecilia remain passionately in love despite being physically distant, and Cecilia has alienated herself from her entire family, remaining staunchly convinced of Robbie's innocence. There's a
Spoiler Over: Continue Here
I think I was supposed to love this book. I mean, it received pretty widespread acclaim, and the movie was Oscar nominated, etc. etc. BLAH BLAH BLAH ME ME ME MY MY MY NOW NOW NOW.
I did not love this book. This was the second time I read it, and I felt exactly the same about it both times. Here's my assessment:
- First section (dinner party, up to Robbie's arrest): Exquisite. Some of the best writing I've ever read.
- War section (Robbie at War, Cecilia as a nurse, fake twist): Tripe. Complete and utter tripe. Writing nowhere near the level of the first section, and it was Painfully Apparent to me that Ian McEwan had not been in World War II, and was writing about an era with which he was completely unfamiliar (not having been ALIVE until 1948, let alone having been anywhere near the war).
- Final section (Briony's present day, bday party, etc): Total let down. Not just disappointing in the super depressing ending, but in my opinion, made very little sense with the rest of the book, and felt contrived and completely separate from the other two portions of the novel.
I'd like to paint a picture of the characters for you, as it's really a prolonged character study (well, the really great first section is, anyway). Here is the cast of characters, in no particular order:
Briony Tallis - 13 years old at the book's outset, younger sister of Cecilia and Leon Tallis
- "Briony's was the only tidy upstairs room in the house. Her straight-backed dolls in their many-roomed mansion appeared to be under strict instructions not to touch the walls." I love this image - it makes me think of Toy Story and the toys being told not to step out of line, whether or not Andy was around. ;)
- "As she saw the dress make its perfect, clinging fit around her cousin and witnessed her mother's heartless smile, Briony knew her only reasonable choice then would be to run away, to live under hedges, eat berries and speak to no one, and be found by a bearded woodsman one winter's dawn, curled up at the base of a giant oak, beautiful and dead, and barefoot, or perhaps wearing the ballet pumps with the pink ribbon straps..." Ah yes, obviously the only Reasonable choice. If Reasonable is defined as INSANELY DRAMATIC.
- "It was wrong to open people's letters, but it was right, it was essential, for her to know everything." And they'll ask me, the hardened criminals in prison, what are you here for? Murder? Drugs? And I'll say, Opening. Ben's. Letter.
- "Lola was perfectly composed, having liberally applied perfume and changed into a green gingham frock to offset her coloring. Her sandals revealed an ankle bracelet and toenails painted vermilion. The sight of these nails gave Briony a constricting sensation around her sternum, and she knew at once that she could not ask Lola to play the prince." Briony penned a play for the cousins to put on to astound her family and Leon with her magnificent brilliance. She had hoped to ask Lola to play the prince. But alas, Lola was hardly prince material. This reminded me of when my sisters and I used to act out plays with our cousins like "The Importance of Being Earnest" in our basement with dress up clothes. We always had to vote on who would play the male parts because we had a plethora of young ladies and rarely any boys (cousins or neighbors) interested in participating in our charade. (I know, IMAGINE adolescent boys not wanting to play gallant gentlemen in Oscar Wilde plays!)
- To the twins, her younger brothers: "You'll be in this play or I'll speak to The Parents." I love the use of the The Parents here - it reminded me of how Dickens refers to the Aged P. Give him a nod, will you? You've no idea how much it pleases him, Pip!
- "The vulnerable Quinceys were being coerced. Lola: "'Remember what The Parents said? We're guests in this house and we make ourselves - what do we make ourselves? Come on. What do we make ourselves?' 'A-menable,' the twins chorused in misery, barely stumbling over the unusual word."
- "There had been trouble enough already, but Briony began to understand the chasm that lay between an idea and its execution only when Jackson began to read from his sheet in a stricken monotone, as though each word was a name on a list of dead people, and was unable to pronounce 'inexperienced' even though it was said for him many times." ahghaghahgahgagh. I love the description of the twins butchering their lines in Briony's play, and her horror at their inability to live up to her expectations.
- Paul: "'What marvelous names you all have. But how am I supposed to tell you two apart?' Pierrot: "I'm generally considered more pleasant." ahghaghaghaghghaghg.
- Note left for the household:
Sory we took some frute And there was'nt a play." aghagahgagha. I love this so much.
- On Paul's assertion that Amo chocolate bars would sweep the nation: "The twins looked at each other. They knew that an adult had no business with sweets. Pierrot said, 'Soldiers don't eat chocolate.'" I want chocolate. Not white chocolate, Real TCHocolate.
- "She could not remain here, she knew she should make plans, but she did nothing. There were various possibilities, all equally unpressing."
- "In fact, the thought of packing a suitcase and taking the morning train did not excite her."
- On Paul: "Watching him during the first several minutes of his delivery, Cecilia felt a pleasant sinking sensation in her stomach as she contemplated how deliciously self-destructive it would be, almost erotic, to be married to a man so nearly handsome, so hugely rich, so unfathomably stupid. He would fill her with his big-faced children, all of them loud, boneheaded boys with a passion for guns and football and aeroplanes." I love the line "fill her with his big-faced children". Find a wench, raise fat babies, and live a good long life.
- "When they embraced, Cecilia felt against her collarbone through the fabric of his jacket a thick fountain pen, and smelled pipe smoke in the folds of his clothes." Leon plays a small role in the book, but I love this quick snapshot that we get of him via Briony.
- On her migraines: "She felt in the top right corner of her brain a heaviness, the inert body weight of some curled and sleeping animal; but when she touched her head and pressed, the presence disappeared from the coordinates of actual space. Now it was in the top right corner of her mind, and in her imagination she could stand on tiptoe and raise her right hand to it. It was important, however, not to provoke it; once this lazy creature moved from the peripheries to the center, then the knifing pains would obliterate all thought, and there would be no chance of dining with Leon and the family tonight."
- "Habitual fretting about her children, her husband, her sister, the help, had rubbed her senses raw; migraine, mother love and, over the years, many hours of lying still on her bed, had distilled from this sensitivity a sixth sense, a tentacular awareness that reached out from the dimness and moved through the house, unseen and all-knowing ... She lay in the dark and knew everything." McEwan's description of Emily's condition is immaculate.
- "It was an interesting combination in a man, intelligence and sheer bulk." It is surprising how infrequently the two go together, is it not? Is there a scientific reason for this that I'm missing?
- "He had found out for himself what it was to be in love, and it thrilled him."
- "There was a story he was plotting with himself as the hero, and already its opening had caused a little shock among his friends."
- "He had never before felt so self-consciously young, nor experienced such appetite, such impatience for the story to begin."
- On literature: "It was not the necessary priesthood, nor the most vital pursuit of an inquiring mind, nor the first and last defense against a barbarian horde, any more than the study of painting or music, history or science."
- "He would be a better doctor for having read literature. What deep readings his modified sensibility might make of human suffering, of the self-destructive folly or sheer bad luck that drive men toward ill health! Birth, death, and frailty in between...Broad tolerance and the long view, an inconspicuously warm heart and cool judgment; his kind of doctor would be alive to the monstrous patterns of fate, and to the vain and comic denial of the inevitable; he would press the enfeebled pulse, hear the expiring breath, feel the fevered hand begin to cool and reflect, in the manner that only literature and religion teach, on the puniness and nobility of mankind..." We are all better people for having read literature. I believe this beyond the shadow of a doubt, and look - research says so, too! For a beautiful response to an Op-Ed challenging this research, read this article on why deep reading makes us smarter and nicer.
"The deep reader, protected from distractions and attuned to the nuances of language, enters a state that psychologist Victor Nell, in a study of the psychology of pleasure reading, likens to a hypnotic trance. Nell found that when readers are enjoying the experience the most, the pace of their reading actually slows. The combination of fast, fluent decoding of words and slow, unhurried progress on the page gives deep readers time to enrich their reading with reflection, analysis, and their own memories and opinions. It gives them time to establish an intimate relationship with the author, the two of them engaged in an extended and ardent conversation like people falling in love."
- "He was in love, with Cecilia, with the twins, with success and the dawn and its curious glowing mist."
On England, the war, and Narnia
The twins and Lola (the Quinceys) are deposited in the Tallis household without a thought, and Briony accepts this, remembering "She had heard it said that the house could easily absorb three children." I loved the image of the house absorbing children, just gobbling them right up, and it immediately reminded me of the first Narnia book when the Pevensies are deposited in the Professor's spacious home and no one is there to pay them much mind.
On the War
Having read 90 of the books on this list, as well as quite a few others, I've come to agree deeply with a sentiment that many writers have expressed, but most memorably (for me) Ernest Hemingway and Louisa May Alcott drilled home: Write what you know. Or, in my opinion, conversely, don't write what you don't know. This isn't strictly literal for me, in that fantasy authors clearly write about a world of their own creation. And yet, there's a sense of deep rooted normalcy and intimate personal connection in some of the best fantasy - the habits and day to day lives of their characters, the physical and sometimes temporal location, and the relationships are all grounded in ideas and concepts that are not unknown to the author. Even dystopias can be extrapolations of the known world, or expanded and exaggerated conceptions of existing fears and trends. My major issue with the middle of this book is that Ian McEwan cannot possibly Know World War II, and while there are relationships and themes that travel through from the first segment of the book, the majority of the second section is centered on the daily life of soldiers and nurses in World War II England and France. At one point, McEwan even has Robbie ponder to himself, "No one would ever know what it was like to be here." Yes, McEwan - see? You got THAT right. No one will know what it was like, Except for people who WERE THERE. So don't try to write what you don't know. I find it offensive, even if you're trying to do present day readers a solid by capturing history. I wrestled with this a little, because some great writers captured pivotal moments in history. But I guess I would make the argument that even if Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities and it's beautiful and epic, it's David Copperfield and Great Expectations where, in my opinion, his true brilliance shines, and that's because it acutely speaks to his own experience, as does Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, as does Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, as does Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, as does Jane Austen's body of work, and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. I think the best authors, the real all-time greats, figure out how to tell their stories through the lens of their own experience, and it is this honesty and this reflection of their perception of the world that makes a classic novel so spectacularly resonant. I'm curious to hear your thoughts, though, readers. Do you agree? Can you think of brilliant authors who don't write just what they know?
And now for a lovely section --Wonderfully Inventive Words I Wasn't Previously Aware Of;
whorl - a coil or ring, or a complete circle on a fingerprint
ha-ha - a ditch with a wall on its inner side below ground level, forming a boundary to a park or garden without interrupting the view (did you know this is a thing? I was marvelously amused by this.)
supine - lying face upward (I think I knew prone was the converse, but supine was new to me!) (from the Latin, of course, Mommy!)
oasthouse - (also, hop kiln) a building designed for drying hops as part of the brewing process (Look at these - they are also super fun! Like hobbit holes, almost! And what a fun word to say! Oasthouse. Oasthouse. See? A delight!)
pergola - an archway in a garden or park consisting of a framework covered with trained climbing or trailing plants (so pretty! I want one! And an oasthouse, too, please! KTHANXBYE)
topers - those who drink alcohol to excess, especially on a regular basis
anodyne - not likely to provoke dissent or offense; uncontentious or inoffensive, often deliberately so
harebells - widely distributed bellflowers with slender stems and pale blue flowers in late summer
Passages that pleased me:
- Briony's imagination: "There were moments in the summer dusk after her light was out, when she burrowed in the delicious gloom of her canopy bed, and made her heart thud with luminous, yearning fantasies, little playlets in themselves."
- "A woman in a paisley apron was sweeping with demented vigor in front of her house through whose open door came the smell of fried breakfast." Such a fantastic sentence.
- On the French windows in the sitting room: "Their southeast aspect had permitted parallelograms of morning sunlight to advance across the powder-blue carpet." This reminds me of the line from Jane Eyre - "Daylight began to forsake the red-room."
- "The truth had become as ghostly as invention."