April 7, 2008
Review: Atonement, by Ian McEwan
Dear Mr. McEwan,
I am writing to express my profound disappointment and irritation with your novel Atonement, recently purchased by me on the strength of several rave reviews. I bought the book yesterday afternoon, dove in, and have been finished for perhaps half an hour. The novel in question is now lying on my bedroom floor, where I dropped it in disgust.
Please don't take this as a criticism of your prose. It's not your prose. Your writing is all of the things they say on the cover: luminous, gripping, et cetera. Lyrical, perhaps. Brilliant, possibly. You've got the chops for great things. And it's on the strength of your writing that I will be looking up other books of your authorship, despite my current ire. After all, I was hooked on this book from the start. It's evocative, spot-on. You use it to say brilliant things. Your prose is not the problem.
It's the plot. It's the utter disaster that you've made of the last, say, hundred pages of the book. It's the shocking twist ending which was anything but. In fact, the ending was both predictable and banal. What a waste of talent! What a waste of time! What a waste of potential. This book could have been so much better.
And yes, I know what you're going to say: I just don't get it, it's metafiction, the ending forces the reader to question the validity and reliability of the narrator, yada yada yada. I do get it. The metafiction is painfully obvious -- in fact I pinged on who had to be writing very early in the novel. That the narration is unstable should have been surprising to no one. It's not like this hasn't been done before, and better: see Margaret Atwood's work, for example, in both The Handmaid's Tale and The Blind Assassin. Good grief, your ending isn't even necessary. Does it tell us anything new? Not really. It over-extends the narrative, going far past the point at which it would have been appropriate to stop.
Maybe I'm not so angry so much as just plain disappointed. This could have been SO GOOD. Atonement was on its way to being the best thing I've read in a year or more. But you screwed up. You let us down. And that grieves me.
I wish this book had lived up to its reviews. I wish this book had lived up to its first three hundred pages. But instead of a bang, it ended with a pathetic sort of fizzle.
I'm sorry I couldn't like it. I'm sorry I'm judging you on your dismal-ish performance rather than on your enormous and stunning potential. And, sadly, I'm almost sorry that I read Atonement. Almost.
Better luck next time,