Atonement is one of the novels I bought last week at the book sale at the Boston Public Library. I was reasonably excited to read it, not only because it was on The List, but because I had seen advertisements for the movie and it had looked decent, if a little over-dramatized.
Thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis is a quiet, imaginative writer. During the summer of 1935, she witnesses what she believes to be an improper flirtation between her older sister, Cecilia, and the son of a servant, Robbie Turner. Having misunderstood what she was seeing, her vivid imagination runs away with her, and Robbie becomes a villain in her eyes. Later, having seemingly received a confirmation of Robbie’s ill intentions towards Cecilia, Briony’s wild imagination eventually brings about a crime that will change all their lives forever.
I’ll start off by saying that Atonement, while not great, was definitely not bad. The writing was good, though simple, and I did enjoy the plot. However, there were a few things I didn’t like about it.
First of all, it takes about 200 pages for anything to really happen. (One of my first thoughts upon having read the first 50 pages without anything happening was, How in the world did they make this into a movie?) With a book like Atonement, this was sort of okay, because it was a quick read and it didn’t take me long to read those 200 pages and find out where the plot was actually going. Even so, I found a lot of the background descriptions unnecessary, and the fifteen-or-so pages we spend in Mrs. Tallis’ head seemed worthless because the narration never goes back to her after that, and we didn’t find out much from her perspective except that she gets headaches a lot. Two-thirds of the book focuses on Briony, and the long, flowery descriptions of everything around her are fitting because of her imagination, but they sometimes seemed over the top.
Second, I was hoping that The List would be free of cliché romance novels—but, as I found out with Atonement, I was wrong. While Atonement is not really the traditional romance novel, since most of it is told from a perspective that doesn’t include the lovers, it’s still undeniably a romance novel. (I was reading in the dining hall last night and when a friend of mine saw me, he asked what was up with the “chick-lit”). Not that I didn’t love romance novels in my day, but still, I’ve been out of that phase since I was about thirteen, and was hoping not to revisit it (at least, not often). Unfortunately, though, there are seven other novels by Ian McEwan on the list, and while my experience with Atonement was certainly not unpleasant, I was hoping The List would be just a little more highbrow than your common romance novels.
I did enjoy the vivid character descriptions, but I felt there were a few that could have been better developed. I would have liked to see events more through Cecilia’s eyes, and would have liked to experience her character less through Robbie and Briony and more through the narrator. Though she was an integral part of the plot, she remained a flat, undeveloped character, and I wish there had been more about her. I would have liked to know more about Lola, too, seeing as what happened to her was the impetus for Briony’s devastating transgression. But alas, we get lots of Briony, a decent amount of Robbie, a tiny bit of Cecilia, and almost none of Lola.
In the end, it was a decent book, and one to pick up when you’re bored on a rainy Sunday—but not, in my opinion, worthy to be on a list that includes true classics like Moby Dick, Jane Eyre, and Gone With The Wind.