Since reading Atonement, I’ve read and enjoyed a number of Ian McEwan’s novels. But with the exception of Atonement, they all seem to have one aspect that pushes things that last step too far and Amsterdam, while one of his more lauded works (and a book that gets me back to working on my 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list, which I’ve fallen behind on this year) is no exception. Its explorations of morality, mortality, and friendship are incredible but the way those thematic lines culminate as far as the plot is concerned don’t quite work for me.
One funeral brings together a woman’s three former lovers and her husband. Two of the former lovers happen to be good friends, Clive and Vernon, and Molly’s drawn out deterioration due to dementia and eventual death has the two men wondering what they would want if they found themselves in her shoes; ultimately they agree they would want someone to end it for them. But Molly’s death also brings some compromising photos of a politician (the third of her former lovers whom neither of the two friends like) to light. Vernon, a newspaper editor, seeks to publish; Clive, a composer, sees things differently and the men’s friendship is tested as news of the photos’ content begins to catch the public attention.
While privacy laws are alluded to with regards to the photographs, much more of the novel deals with how to respect a person’s dying wishes––and where the line falls between sane, rational thought and unreasonableness. McEwan seems to argue––as he has in the past—that much of it comes down to perspective (one of my favorite themes from Atonement). The demands of those in our lives—our families, our colleagues, our friends, and those we dislike—all affect our position on any situation that presents itself. What are our obligations to ourselves and to each other? Are they the same for everyone at every time? Similarly, how do you judge when someone is behaving irrationally if/when their behavior is directly related to circumstances you view in a drastically different way?
There isn’t a particularly strong female presence in the novel. Even though Molly and her wishes are alluded to frequently in the text, it’s very clear that this is a version of Molly filtered through the (often selfish and idealizing) male perspective of her former lovers. They provide their impressions of the intimacy they once shared with her but at no point are we given her opinion of any of them. She is safely dead where she cannot challenge their memories or positions except as and when they choose to wield her against one another. At the same time, the pivotal moment of the plot arguably occurs because of one of the only other women in the novel—the politician’s wife. Because of how she reframes the question of the scandalous photographs everything shifts beneath both Vernon and Clive setting the novel’s final events into motion. It’s a moment that shows how important it is to be the one controlling the narrative of any given story.
So while I find elements of the novel’s final movements a bit extreme and eye-roll worthy, they’re hardly out of the ordinary for an Ian McEwan novel and the thematic resonance of the novel as a whole certainly make it worth a read (Atonement will probably always be my favorite of his works).