Summary and book reviews of Atonement by Ian McEwan

Atonement

by Ian McEwan

Atonement
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2002, 448 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2003, 448 pages

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Book Summary

Brilliant and utterly enthralling in its depiction of childhood, love and war, England and class. At its center this is a profound–and profoundly moving–exploration of shame, forgiveness and the difficulty of absolution.

On the hottest day of the summer of 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis sees her older sister Cecilia strip off her clothes and plunge into the fountain in the garden of their country house. Watching Cecilia is their housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner, a childhood friend who, along with Briony’s sister, has recently graduated from Cambridge.

By the end of that day the lives of all three will have been changed forever. Robbie and Cecilia will have crossed a boundary they had never before dared to approach and will have become victims of the younger girl’s scheming imagination. And Briony will have committed a dreadful crime, the guilt for which will color her entire life.

In each of his novels Ian McEwan has brilliantly drawn his reader into the intimate lives and situations of his characters. But never before has he worked with so large a canvas: In Atonement he takes the reader from a manor house in England in 1935 to the retreat from Dunkirk in 1941; from the London’s World War II military hospitals to a reunion of the Tallis clan in 1999.

Atonement is Ian McEwan’s finest achievement. Brilliant and utterly enthralling in its depiction of childhood, love and war, England and class, the novel is at its center a profound–and profoundly moving–exploration of shame and forgiveness and the difficulty of absolution.

CHAPTER ONE

The play, for which Briony had designed the posters, programmes and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crepe paper, was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch. When the preparations were complete, she had nothing to do but contemplate her finished draft and wait for the appearance of her cousins from the distant north. There would be time for only one day of rehearsal before her brother arrived. At some moments chilling, at others desperately sad, the play told a tale of the heart whose message, conveyed in a rhyming prologue, was that love which did not build a foundation on good sense was doomed. The reckless passion of the heroine, Arabella, for a wicked foreign count is punished by ill fortune when she contracts cholera during an impetuous dash towards a seaside town with her intended. Deserted by him and nearly everybody else, ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. What sort of social and cultural setting does the Tallis house create for the novel? What is the mood of the house, as described in chapter 12? What emotions and impulses are being acted upon or repressed by its inhabitants? How does the careful attention to detail affect the pace of Part One, and what is the effect of the acceleration of plot events as it nears its end?
  2. A passion for order, a lively imagination, and a desire for attention seem to be Briony’s strongest traits. In what ways is she still a child? Is her narcissism—her inability to see things from any point of view but her own—unusual in a thirteen-year-old? Why does the scene she witnesses at the fountain change her whole perspective on writing? ...
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  • award image

    National Book Critics Circle Award
    2002

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The strength of Atonement is in both the plot and the imagery McEwan conjures up. It is a book to absorb slowly and well worth the time to do so. The middle section, set during the evacuation of the British troops from France (via Dunkirk) in 1940, is particularly good.  

Media Reviews

Library Journal

Moving deftly between styles, this is a compelling exploration of guilt and the struggle for forgiveness. Recommended for most public libraries.

Booklist - Donna Seaman

Every lustrously rendered, commanding scene is charged with both despair and diabolical wit, and McEwan's Jamesian prose covers the emotional spectrum from searing eroticism to toxic guilt. In sum, he excels brilliantly at depicting moral dilemmas and stressed minds in action without losing a keen sense of the body's terrible fragility, the touching absurdity of desire, and time's obstinacy.

Publishers Weekly

This haunting novel, which just failed to win the Booker this year, is at once McEwan at his most closely observed and psychologically penetrating, and his most sweeping and expansive.

Kirkus Reviews

McEwan's latest, both powerful and exquisite, considers the making of a writer, the dangers and rewards of imagination, and the juncture between innocence and awareness, all set against the late afternoon of an England soon to disappear.

Reader Reviews

Marilou Sprang

Atonement
Atonement is a fantastic and addicting novel that is full of surprising twists and turns. It presents the power of the human imagination and what can happen when our imaginations run wild. McEwan’s imaginative story, complicated characters, and ...   Read More

A Bookshelf Monstrosity

Atonement
I usually make a point of not seeing a movie before I get a chance to read the book, but the opposite is true for my experience with McEwan's Atonement. I rented the movie last summer from Netflix and as soon as the movie ended, I stared at the blank...   Read More

Marquie

Atonement avalanche
Prodigious! Supreme masterpiece! If novels came with sound effects then each voluptuous sentence within ATONEMENT would burst with class and vivacity! McEwan wields a glorious prose portraying a bittersweet tale of romance - the atonement of a ...   Read More

Margie W

Atonement Review
Atonement is a fantastic love story about childhood friends. It will make you sigh, laugh and maybe even cry. Atonement brings to life the importance of perspective. One could claim that McEwan was inspired to use World War II as the backdrop to ...   Read More

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