What Do You Do All Day? (or "Stop Me Before I Volunteer Again")
Sunday, March 02, 2003
What I Finished Reading Recently:
Atonement by Ian McEwan
I first heard about this book when my mother raved about it to me a couple of months ago. Then someone in our book group pitched it as their selection for the year, and we wound up reading it just few weeks later.
The story centers on a young girl, Briony, whose criminal accusation against a family friend results in serious life-long changes for many people and relationships around her. While the girl's accusation - or "crime" as she calls it - is the most serious event in the book, and most definitely the catalyst for all of the story that follows, I was actually surprised to learn, on reading the book, that it doesn't happen until about half way through the novel.
In fact, the book is divided into four very distinct sections. The first and longest, set in 1935, spends a great deal of time setting up young Briony's life, including the people in it: older sister Cecelia, older brother Leon, her mother and father, Leon's houseguest Paul, three cousins and family friend Robbie, son of the family's maid, who is a special favorite of Briony's father.
During this section of the book, Briony is a very precocious 13-year-old, longing to make the jump into maturity, but still hampered by a child's naivete even though she has a vivid and active imagination. And it is this combination of naivete and imagination which eventually leads her to make her criminal accusation, which changes everyone's lives forevermore.
The second section of the book takes place in 1940, and is a vivid portrayal of Robbie's experiences as a soldier in World War II. Section three is an equally vivid portrayal of Briony's life during the same year, in which she trains as a war nurse and tries to atone for her childhood sins. Finally, the very brief last section takes place in 1999, at a family reunion during which we learn the truth about Briony's atonement, and the fates of all the key characters.
In general, I found the book a fast read, and quite absorbing, despite my initial assumpution that the major catalyst event would happen much sooner in the story than it did. Once I got past that erroneous expectation, however, I enjoyed both the story and the characters. The extreme jumps in time and setting between the first and second sections was a bit jarring (and is one factor that would be extrememly tricky to handle if anyone ever decides to make this into a movie, since movies generally don't handle that kind of extreme midstream shift very well)...but the third section flowed very naturally from the second, and even the big leap to 1999 at the end of the novel worked fairly well, because it was both brief and quite complete in its wrap-up.
While I enjoyed the book, however, I said on finishing it that it probably wasn't one of my favorite novels ever, and I wasn't too sure how much fodder it would provide for our book group discussion. As often happens, however, I was quite surprised at the depth and enthusiasm of the discussion it inspired, which turned out to be one of our group's best ever.
One thing that made it particularly discussible is that while author McEwan does provide a great deal of physical detail about places and events, he doesn't always spell out fully the "so what really happened here?" nuances, and if you don't read very closely, you might miss some major clues about the true nature of the events described. So we had a lot of very lively debate about the truth of certain events, and the ways various members of our group interpreted the book's events and inferences.
Another factor that definitely made for good discussion was the facility with which McEwan shifts perspective as different characters switch prominence in various sections of the book. Most of us agreed that in the first section, which belongs very much to 13-year-old Briony, we would have sworn, had we not known differently, that the author was female and could understand this character so well only because "she" had once been just such a young girl. But the same was true in the second section, which was told from 20-something Robbie's point of view -- his war experiences were so vivid that at least one group member found it hard to believe they were fictional.
In the end, I actually wound up liking the book better - and better appreciating the subtleties of its writing - after our discussion than I had before it. I still don't think it'll be remembered as one of my favorite books ever...but it was definitely worth reading, and would most definitely be worth a spot on any book group's discussion list.