Atonement by Ian McEwan
2002 Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
Finished on 9/4/19
Rating: 2/5 (Fair)
On the hottest day of the summer of 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis sees her older sister Cecilia strip off her clothes and plunge into the fountain in the garden of their country house. Watching Cecilia is their housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner, a childhood friend who, along with Briony’s sister, has recently graduated from Cambridge.
By the end of that day the lives of all three will have been changed forever. Robbie and Cecilia will have crossed a boundary they had not dared to approach and will have become victims of the younger girl’s scheming imagination. And Briony will have committed a dreadful crime, the guilt for which will color her entire life.
In each of his novels Ian McEwan has brilliantly drawn his reader into the intimate lives and situations of his characters; but never before has he worked with so large a canvas. Atonement is Ian McEwan’s finest achievement. Brilliant and utterly enthralling in its depiction of childhood, love and war, England and class, Atonement is at its center a profound—and profoundly moving—exploration of shame and forgiveness, and the difficulty of absolution.
I first read this novel in 2001. I had received an ARC months before its publication date and was so excited to tell everyone about this wonderful book when it was finally released. I gave it a 5-star rating and it was my number one read of the year. I've had it on my shelf for 18 years, always hoping to make time to read it a second time, so after chatting with some friends about the books we've read and loved that others loathed, I decided the time had come. I had to see what I might had missed and why so many readers disliked this novel as much as they did.
It may come as a shock to many, but I am now one of those readers and it makes me sad to be so disappointed with a book after feeling so strongly about it for all those years. But it was all I could do to finish reading it and had I not previously read and loved it, I might have given up by the 50 page mark. Unlike my first reading, I did not find the story at all compelling or intense, but rather, I was bored with McEwan’s wordiness and impatient with the characters. In 2001, I wrote:
Even though I was sure of the eventual outcome (and with whom the blame lay), I was still completely engrossed in the narrative, reading as quickly as possible, yet knowing I should slow down and enjoy the story. The publisher’s blurb claims that Briony has a scheming imagination, but that implies malice and cruel intent, which I don’t believe is the case. I think Briony was simply naïve with an overly active imagination.Well, that was my initial reaction, but upon a second reading, I no longer believe she was quite so innocent. She knew her accusation was unfair and unjust and yet she stood firm rather than admit a mistake.
They were safe, Cecilia was with Leon, and she, Briony, was free to wander in the dark and contemplate her extraordinary day. Her childhood had ended, she decided now as she came away from the swimming pool, the moment she tore down her poster. The fairy stories were behind her, and in the space of a few hours she had witnessed mysteries, seen an unspeakable word, interrupted brutal behavior, and by incurring the hatred of an adult whom everyone trusted—but whose heart she alone knew was black—she had become a participant in the drama of life beyond the nursery. All she had to do now was discover the stories, not just the subjects, but a way of unfolding them, that would do justice to her new knowledge. Or did she mean, her wiser grasp of her own ignorance?
By clinging tightly to what she believed she knew, narrowing her thoughts, reiterating her testimony, she was able to keep from mind the damage she only dimly sensed she was doing. When the matter was closed, when the sentence was passed and the congregation dispersed, a ruthless youthful forgetting, a willful erasing, protected her well into her teens.and
Her memories of the interrogation and signed statements and testimony, or of her awe outside the courtroom from which her youth excluded her, would not trouble her so much in the years to come as her fragmented recollection of that late night and summer dawn. How guilt refined the methods of self-torture, threading the beads of detail into an eternal loop, a rosary to be fingered for a lifetime.
In spite of a disappointing second read, I do not intend to stop re-reading my favorite books. Many books have proven to be just as good, if not better, than my initial reading. I don't know why there was such a disparity in my reactions to this novel, but I'm not going to waste anymore time over-analyzing my opinion. How about you? Have you ever read a book you loved but wound up disliking it after the second reading?