I will probably be kicked out of the English Majors club, but I REALLY hated Atonement. I posted about whether to even finish it at roughly the 100-page mark (it’s just over 300), and after reading the comments on GoodReads, decided I’d push on until the page-200 marker. This decision ended up with a lot more action and yet no increase in my interest level, and I skimmed my way to the end, really irritated that I could not find the rabbithole that everyone who loves this book had managed to locate.
Everyone on GoodReads refuses to discuss the plot for fear of spoilers, which I find lame. First of all, the “spoiler” isn’t a secret: the back of the book says, “On a summer day in 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis witnesses the flirtation between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of a servant. But Briony’s incomplete grasp of adult motives and precocious imagination brings about a crime that will change all their lives…”
Clearly, Briony misinterprets sex as an attack, and Robbie is jailed for rape. Right? I knew this before I started reading. While some of the details were not what I expected, the general story was exactly what I thought it would be. This is a story full of tragedy, and I COULD NOT BRING MYSELF TO CARE ABOUT A SINGLE CHARACTER. Fantastic writing, greatly descriptive detail, and every single word completely removed from the story being told. Briony is unbearably irritating, Cecilia is without any depth, and Robbie never evolves from being more than one-dimensional.
Here’s the thing: an author can write without being sentimental and still enable the reader to actually have feelings for the characters. Steve Martin’s Shopgirl comes to mind here. McEwan is not one of those writers, and though it’s possible for someone to be greatly impressed by his writing, I find it hard to believe that any of these characters will linger with me, or that this will be a book I think about again.
McEwan’s writing fails to impress me, though; it just leaves me cold and intensely disappointed. It’s like watching a robot play the piano beautifully and knowing every note is perfect, but being continually distracted from the music by the robot. McEwan’s detachment is so complete that it erodes foundation and meaning from his words and characters, and I’m left considering all the squandered potential.
If I had to explain it to someone else briefly, I would say this book reminds me of how Eddie Izzard describes British movies:
Atonement is like arranging matches. A lot of work for no discernable reason or result except irritation. And man, am I irritated that not only did I NOT like this book, but I feel like I SHOULD have. What bollocks, McEwan. You’d better go.