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,


7 thoughts on “Review: Atonement, by Ian McEwan

  1. I wonder if Mr. McEwan will be mortified or delighted to learn that a reader had the guts to speak from, well the gut. Often we only hear the rave reviews but (and maybe this is fortunate) we rarely hear of a reader who says “I couldn't stomach it.” Give McEwan another chance. Take a big bite. He's yummy.Kathleen Molloy, author – Dining with


  2. I don't know which he would be — or even which I'd want him to be. Part of me would like him to be delighted, because of what that would say about him as an author, and I guess of his integrity as an author. The other part of me would like him to be mortified, because I am still in the first flush of emotion about this and, perhaps obviously, pretty bitter.I wouldn't mind if it was simply a bad book altogether. That kind of book I can either laugh at or discard, and take little further interest in the matter. But this book did start brilliantly. I believe I used the word “amazing” while discussing it with a classmate only this morning. It was amazing, and then it crashed and burned and it was so horribly disappointing. It's much harder to get over a good-bad book than one that was simply altogether awful.


  3. I have read “Atonement” by Ian McEwan.I love this story.also I had read the book by Ernest Hemingway was called “A Farewell to Arms”that story was included “Love War Seperation”.I think Atonement is a little same as this story.anyway I love this type story .also I saw the file ,Keira Knightley was excellent .I propose to anybody have read this book watch the film ,too.


  4. dude. I have more McEwan. I could have lent you AtonementAmsterdam go for that next. I have it. You are coming over tomorrow. I will lend.


  5. Always good to read a review that may not agree with me – but I get your point.. I loved this book and maybe due to the writing being so great. Good review, thank you. I enjoyed On Chesil Beach, too. So Amsterdam is now on my list… As is Saturday.


  6. didn't read the book, but saw the movie and thought the same thing. early on, I was convinced that I was watching two separate perspectives, but when the “twist” came, I was actually offended. because the writer, who was supposed to be successful and everything, admitted to creating the poorest-written part of the story. if you create an author in your novel, but that author's voice is so far inferior to yours, but you expect the reader to believe that the author is popular, then I have to question the world you've created where people would accept this character's words as having literary merit. at that point I see total failure. I'm not glad you found the book a disppointment because movies are just to fill time, and if they suck, it's only two hours lost, but books should serve a higher purpose: since I find writing difficult, I value it more, so when others write and produce work that doesn't…. sorry, got distracted and lost my thought.


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