“Amsterdam” by Ian McEwan

This was a good, quick read. An interesting story that explores several moral issues such as euthanasia and privacy rights. Another theme is the yearning for greatness and the sacrifices involved, often in vain. For example, Clive is a famous composer trying to create a “Millennial Symphony” and struggling with the pressure. He feels on the verge of creating a work of genius but keeps being interrupted just as he is about to create a crucial part. Vernon is a newspaper editor who thinks he has created a truly great front page, one that will restore the paper’s declining circulation and will become so iconic that it is used in journalism school one day. Julian Garmony is a right-wing Tory foreign secretary on the verge of a leadership bid but threatened with oblivion by the exposure of his cross-dressing habit (the subject of Vernon’s great front page).

One thing the novel captured really well was the fickleness of public opinion: at several crucial points, there is a sudden swing and people who supported one view before suddenly say the complete opposite and maintain that they always believed that. Reminds me of the death of Princess Diana, when the same newspapers that were exoriating her before her death suddenly started idolising her. This novel was written in 1998, a year after Princess Diana’s death, when this issue, and also issues of press invasion of privacy, would have been very current.

There was a real let-down for me, though: in several instances, the characters just didn’t feel real. The ending, particularly, was a disappointment. (Major spoiler alert!!) The ending just seemed inconsistent with the characters, much too dramatic compared with what had gone before. Clive and Vernon had argued, had a disagreement, each thought the other was morally at fault. Fine. But it’s the kind of thing you can get over, or just not bother to call the person again. The thing is, they end up killing each other! It’s just bizarre. There’s a bit of a setup in that the woman they both loved, Molly, the woman whose funeral opens the book, died very slowly and painfully, and they’d both agreed that if they were terminally ill, the other one would assist in their suicide. References to Amsterdam’s relaxed assisted-suicide laws are sprinkled through the book as foreshadowing. But still, when they end up killing each other, I just didn’t buy it.

Some beautiful writing, good scenes – the Lake District one was particularly memorable – and it kept me reading all the way through. There was some great description of the act of creation in the parts where Clive is trying to write his symphony, and a good exploration of the moral dilemmas of the newspaper industry. But it was a big problem for me that at several points I just didn’t believe the characters would really do what the writer said they were doing. McEwan has written much better books – Atonement was fantastic. This was just OK.

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There are 4 comments

  1. “when they end up […], I just didn’t buy it.”
    It’s a story, fiction, with no claim to reality or being even remotely likely. I wouldn’t get hung up about the ending.
    As another reviewer wrote: The book shows a lot of satirical aspects, so that over-the-top ending could just have been the logical consequence of that.

    But hey, that’s just my opinion.

    1. Hi Chris

      Thanks for the comment. You may be right about satire – from what I remember, I don’t really see how the ending could be satirical, or what it could be satirising, but it’s been a long time since I read the book, so I might be missing something.

      I disagree, though, with the point about fiction not needing to have a claim on reality. When we’re reading a book, we’re not thinking to ourselves “This is all just made up, so I’ll accept whatever comes next, no matter how unlikely – it’s all fiction anyway.” We’re identifying with the characters and in some way believing them to be real, and wanting to know what happens to them next. (I know that some more experimental fiction deliberately eschews believable plot and character, and draws attention to its own artifice, but I don’t think Amsterdam falls into that category.)

      You’re right, of course, that we accept plenty of things in novels that are not remotely likely. I’d have accepted an ending where they both rode off on a magic carpet together, if the novel had been full of similar fantastical elements before, and if the characters had some reasonable motivation for doing that. And that’s the key – novelists work very hard to carry their readers along with them, to convince them to accept utterly implausible scenarios through skilled story-telling and character development. My problem with the ending of Amsterdam was that I felt McEwan hadn’t laid the groundwork properly, and so it left me thinking “WTF??” Whether you’re reading fiction or non-fiction, it’s a problem when you have that reaction. I’m prepared to accept that the ending worked fine for other readers – the book was very popular and well-received, after all. But for this reader, it just didn’t work.

  2. Hey ,
    When reading all the reviews about Amsterdam i wished if one .. just one talked about Garmony and his case . Double life .. Family man and cross-dresser .. but everyone is just talking about Clive Vernon Molly .. but i think Garmony’s secret is also important and interesting . i hated him at first but then .. i just felt sad about him .
    What do you think ?

    1. Hi Doujanah
      Thanks for your comment! I’m afraid it’s been eight years now since I read this book and posted the review, and I can’t recall it well enough to be able to answer you. But do keep an eye on the comments, because often other readers contribute answers when I can’t. 🙂

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