Spoiler Warning: I refer to minor or vague plot points, but do not spoil any major parts of the story.
I wanted to like Atonement. I wanted to fall in love with it the way one falls in love with Keira Knightly in any movie she’s in. The way one falls in love with that gauzy period drama that gives you a dreamlike escape. McEwan’s general plan for Atonement is unique, maybe even ingenious. Unfortunately, his scenes are clunky and repetitive; the characters are vapid and unsavory. Atonement should be what the movie after it probably is: luscious, dramatic, emotional. The reader should gasp at the final reveal, weep at the turning of the last page. Instead, I found myself quite literally groaning with impatience. It simply wouldn’t end. Personally, the World War genre is one of my least favorite, however, in Atonement, it was the descriptions of the WWII battle fields and Robbie’s experience therein which most transported and engaged me. For a book touting the description, “Atonement engages the reader on every conceivable level, with an ease and authority that mark it as a genuine masterpiece,” it was a major disappointment.
Briony, the story’s most prominent narrator, was so painfully childlike and selfish, her character was unbearable. At first I couldn’t quite place what made me so uncomfortable with McEwan’s portrayal of her, then her older sister Cecilia, and finally their young cousin Lola. While I believe McEwan does a commendable job of illustrating the confusing transition period between childhood and adulthood, he goes too far in the vilification of his main character. Briony has zero redeeming qualities, which makes it hard for a reader to get through her copious paragraphs of self-indulgence. More than that, having once been a young girl myself, the author’s almost complete denigration of young girls and their trouble-causing ways was subtly problematic. How dare Briony be prideful? How dare she make a fuss? Look at the havoc she’s caused.
Meanwhile, the romance between Robbie and Cecilia, even for wartime, seems flimsy at best and utterly unbelievable at worst. Excuse me while I scoff that these two twenty-somethings who have had one actual conversation since that epic and all important falling-in-love moment, and one actual sexual encounter, who are supposedly going to wait for each other for something like five years. Robbie, who is thrust into some of the bloodiest and brutal war scenes our world has ever seen, is more understandable. He needs an escape, a refuge. This part of the book was moving, emotional, transporting. Cecilia the college-educated literature student turned nurse, however? We’re to believe she’s surviving on, “one moment in the library” for 5 years? Personally, I just need more for my war-torn-love epics.
To all of those beautiful people who love Atonement, I’m so sorry. So many people adore this book and I just really didn’t. I finally finished it, though, and maybe now I can enjoy the movie.