Saturday, May 15, 2004


Despite various pressing occupational obligations, I just finished Ian McEwan's Atonement, which had been recommended to me by my friend Erin. Erin usually recommends good books. Plus, the back of the book notes that it was selected as Best Book of the Year by, inter alia, Time, The Washington Post Book World, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times Book Review, San Francisco Times, and the Seattle Times.

So when I was about halfway through, I felt very alienated from the world of discerning book readers. I resigned myself to being someone who, despite efforts at late-blooming refinement by others, was a fan of the densely-plotted page-turners, and who found Atonement's detailed polypsychological introspection to provide an okay but not inspiring page-skipper. Or, in more cynical moments of reading, I thought that other people probably didn't derive anything more than the moderate pleasure I was from reading it, but because of the sophistication and intelligence of the prose regarded it as the kind of book that Should Be Praised and Should Receive Important Awards.

Erin, I thought, must have been overly swayed by the effusive critical praise. This was especially disappointing given that Erin and I had bonded before in defiance of the received wisdom of critics, most recently in Chicago when we were both driven to near-suicide-pactal boredom by the inexplicably-wildly-praised French documentary To Be and To Have.

But, then, lo, the last eighty or so pages of the novel turn out to be astonishing, not just wonderful-wonderful in themselves, but wonderful-wonderful in ways that vindicate some of the earlier parts of the book where reading was more of a chore. By the time you are in the middle of any novel, your brain has basically defined a space of places that the story could basically go. And this is one of those novels that not only takes the story in a direction that you didn't think was possible but also one where, when you finish, you do so with the sense of having read a novel that ends exactly right. I suppose the last novel that gave me this feeling was Life of Pi*, but the last third here is even more clever (although the first two-thirds is nowhere near as entertaining). So many novels have a splendid beginning and even middle but then don't end right or anywhere close to right,** making it so refreshing when one reads a novel that ends brilliantly.

* As well as maybe the Jonathan Lethem novella This Shape We're In, which is only $9 on Amazon, although then again it takes less than an hour to read. (Note that, if you follow this link and buy the book, JFW receives no kickback, because the proprietor thinks it's kinda self-important, venal, and borderline creepy when bloggers register themselves with Amazon in order to do that.)

** Including, as far as I can tell, the entire oeuvre of John Irving, excepting those novels that do not start well either. With apologies to fans of his who may read this, John Irving stands in my mind as sort of the Thomas Kincade of novel-enders.

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