Book Review: Amsterdam

Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam is a drama turned black comedy about the former lovers of a deceased woman, who make a pact that ends in disaster.  The book opens in London at the funeral of Molly Lane as her lovers–a celebrated composer, a newspaper editor, and a high ranking politician–interact with each other and her widowed and loathed husband.  Unusual circumstances emerge, friendships taken to higher levels of trust implode when tested, scandal erupts, and people are exposed for better or worse.

This book is disturbing.  It is one of the few books I have read without a moral protagonist.  Everyone in the book is unsavory–from the deceased, to the widower, to the composer, to the editor, to the politician.  They are all underhanded and foul. 

But I loved the book.  McEwan is a master because he is able to accomplish what great writers can accomplish:  making the reader root for the success of the bad guy.  I also loved the book because it focused on the composer (the most sympathetic of the characters) and took us through his creative process for writing a symphony. I imagine it would be tedious for some, but I couldn’t help but compare his writing process with my own.  The highs and lows, bursts and lulls, the strange places from which  ideas emerge.  “Sometimes Clive worked so hard on a piece that he could lose sight of his purpose–to create this pleasure at once so sensual and abstract, to translate into vibrating air this nonlanguage whose meanings were forever just beyond reach, suspended tantalizingly at a point where emotion and intellect fused.” (172) Love that. 

McEwan reminds me of Fitzgerald in his wisdom at reading and exposing human motive and emotion.  When the composer is hurt by the editor for not taking him seriously, he ruminates on all the ways his friend has failed him.  “Clive stared ahead at the empty seat opposite, lost to the self-punishing convolutions of his fervent social accounting, unknowingly bending and coloring the past through the prism of his unhappiness.” (71)  How often do we do this?

I was so pleased upon looking at the “Author’s Works” list at the beginning of the novel to see that McEwan has so many books I haven’t read.  (I got the same rush when I thought I’d completed all the Jane Austen books and saw that she had written one more almost complete novel, Sandition, that I’d had yet to read.) 

I am aware that McEwan is a “writer’s writer” so I won’t recommend this book far and wide, but I can’t wait to read the others.



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