If Alfred Hitchcock were alive, this would be an ideal book for him to bring to the screen. It’s as Hitchcockian a book as I can recall reading in recent years. In Amsterdam, Ian McEwan captures that same sense of menace lurking within the ordinary that you find in so much Hitchcock. There are even whiffs of Hitchcockian comedy. And it’s all delivered with McEwan’s meticulous and often poetic prose.

This short book, a novella really, delivers a twisty sort of plot whose secrets I’d rather not reveal. The gist is that two men each face a moral dilemma, and the repercussions of their choices are dire. But that’s a simplistic way of describing this story. There’s a lot packed in, and when I got to the end I was impressed at how well-constructed it is, with details that initially went unnoticed making major contributions to the story. It’s elegant plotting, leading up to a wickedly clever ending.

Clive Linley is a popular and, in his mind, brilliant composer; and Vernon Halliday is the new editor of a newspaper that he expects to resurrect from near death. The two men are old friends united by the love of a recently dead woman named Molly Lane. Both are obsessed with their work to the point that they will do anything to achieve the greatness they long for—and seem to believe they deserve. Neither man is particularly likable or even interesting on his own, but their situations and their thought processes make them interesting.

I understand that some people think the ending is over the top, but I didn’t see it that way, at least not entirely. To me, this book is about madness, not about the ethical dilemmas that seem to drive the plot. Early in the book, one character mulls over his fear of losing control of his mind, as Molly did in the final months of her life. But what constitutes a loss of control? Are we ever fully in control? Can we avoid all forms of madness? The whole book hinges on this question. (A Hitchcockian theme, for sure!) And looking at the ending through that lens turns it into something more than a clever twist.

Although I liked the ending, it’s not perfect. I think the final few pages did push the cleverness a little too far. It seemed more like a gotcha’ and less like a thematic statement, but I only feel that way in retrospect. I chuckled at the final pages when I first read them and only had reservations after, when I wondered why that coda.

Another great pleasure I found in this book was the music. I’ve never understood what goes on in a composer’s mind when he or she is working, but McEwan helped me get a flavor of the blend of inspiration and calculation that composers must use. I’d love a composer’s perspective on how well he captured it. It certainly felt real—I could just about hear some of Clive’s work from the descriptions. And the chaos of the newsroom seemed perfectly rendered; I could hear the overlapping voices and feel the energy.

I’ve gotten the impression that opinions about almost all Ian McEwan’s books run the gamut, even among his fans. Amsterdam, despite having won the Booker Prize, does not seem to be a favorite of many, except for Jenny, who put this on my list of books to read this year. I wonder if the Booker stamp caused people to expect something deeper or more epic. I find it difficult to compare this to the more ambitious Atonement; the two books are so different in scope. I’d rank On Chesil Beach as my favorite, but it too is altogether different. (Saturday is my least favorite; I just lost interest halfway through.) Amsterdam is very good at being what it is—a dark satire on the madness in modern life. If you read it, just think Hitchcock. That should put your mind in the right space.

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25 Responses to Amsterdam

  1. Sounds like a good one!

  2. Deb says:

    I just can’t get into McEwan. Of the two McEwan books I’ve managed to get through, I thought ENDURING LOVE was nothing but a gussied-up stalker story and THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS shockingly nihilistic (I’m not opposed to downbeat endings, but I have to feel there’s a reason for an ending beyond shock value), and I’m completely with you on SATURDAY, a book I put down by page 30 and never picked up again.

    • Teresa says:

      Ha! You mention gussied-up stalker story, and I think “yes, please.” I do love thrillers, but find that the writing in thrillers is often so trite, repetitive, and dull that I can’t enjoy myself. Those kinds of stories could use some gussying up, IMO. And if that’s what McEwan does, I’m all for it! (It’s not at all what he does in On Chesil Beach, though.)

      I did finish Saturday. I think I was at least halfway through before I got frustrated

      • Deb says:

        Oh, don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a well-paced thriller/suspense/mystery/stalker story as much as anyone. What I disliked about ENDURING LOVE was the sense I got that McEwan was convinced he WASN”T writing such a thing. Yes, the language was several notches about run-of-the-mill thriller/mysteries, but the plotting was so-so and a rather hackneyed subplot would have been handled much more adroitly by a number of mystery/thriller authors I’ve read.

      • Teresa says:

        Well, yes, a bad thriller all gussied up is still a bad thriller.

  3. Steph says:

    On this book we will have to disagree! I read and reviewed it a few years ago and really did not like it at all. I found the writing overwrought and soporific and to me there was nothing shocking or surprising about any of the “twists” or the way the book resolves itself. I deeply disliked this book and it is what convinced me that McEwan is simply not a writer for me. Ah well, it’s these differences that keep life interesting, no?

    • Teresa says:

      I didn’t find the twists surprising exactly–there was an inevitability about it that kept it from being a surprise. (I’m less interested in surprise than I am in how things unfold.) I was impressed at the details that seemed to be for color actually had dramatic payoffs–that did surprise me!

      As for the prose, I actually had a sentence or two in my first draft mentioning that there were a couple of moments where I thought the descriptions went on too long. But those moments were so fleeting and the prose generally so evocative that I decided to leave that out. However, I can sort of see what you mean, even if I disagree :)

  4. Jenny says:

    Oh, man, overwrought and soporific? It was the prose that made me want you to read this one! I thought it sparkled — biting, dark, angry, funny. I guess I don’t think the ending is over the top for what it is, but then the Booker wasn’t much on my radar when I first read this in, I think, 2002.

    Like the Hitchcock allusions. I agree.

    • Teresa says:

      When I finished reading this, I started imagining one of those brilliant Hitchcock trailers where he talks to the audience: “Friends. The ones who are there for us. The ones we trust we our lives. These two gents are great friends. They share everything—their secrets, their fears, even … their lovers. See they even share a glass of bubbly in celebration of their many years of friendship.” Man, it would make such a good Hitchcock movie.

      For a Hitchcockian thriller, I thought the ending worked fine. The last bit was silly and maybe pushed too far, but it was darned clever. I think I’ve gotten jaded about “twist” endings and how they’ve become almost obligatory, even when the story doesn’t demand it. But on a second read, I might find there are hints to that last twist as well.

  5. Kathleen says:

    Sadly, I have yet to ready any of McEwan’s work. I wonder which one I should start with?

    • Teresa says:

      I’d say Atonement is the one to start with. Opinions on almost all of his other books seem to be divided between loving and loathing. But most people seem to at least like Atonement.

  6. Kristen M. says:

    I haven’t read McEwan yet but this sounds like one I could get into (especially if you and Jenny both like it). It’s been a while since I read something set in the music world.

    • Teresa says:

      The music descriptions were really fabulous. And it’s nice and short, so it’s not a huge time investment, if you’re curious about McEwan.

  7. JoAnn says:

    Although I’ve only read Atonement, I seem to be collecting McEwan’s novel. Just checked the shelf and found Amsterdam, Saturday, and On Chesil Beach – all library sale finds. Had planned to read On Chesil Beach next, but you’ve changed my mind.

    • Teresa says:

      Oh, but On Chesil Beach is brilliant in an entirely different way. I guess it’s down to whether you’re in the mood for a dark comedy or a tragic romance.

  8. savidgereads says:

    I never thought of the ‘Hitchcockian’ angle but you are completely right. This would have been the perfect novel for a Hitchcock movie, especially the ending which I shall say nothing more about. Glad you enjoyed this one.

    • Teresa says:

      I have some vivid mental pictures of how Hitch would have done that ending. He’s the only director I can think of with the right comic touch for it!

  9. Emily says:

    Haha, your imitation of those Hitchcock spoken trailers is hilarious! Spot on.

    One of my best friends is a fairly dark/cynical lady with a seriously off-kilter sense of humor (all reasons I love her), and this is her favorite McEwan. She liked it far better than Atonement, which I think was too sentimental for her. I’ve been meaning to read it ever since we first talked about it, but haven’t gotten around to it yet – all your comments on the nature of madness and the extent to which we ever have control over our minds are fascinating.

    • Teresa says:

      I am a huge Hitchcock fan, and I adore those trailers.

      Yes, Atonement is much more sentimental. I liked them both, but they’re very different books. Off-kilter black humor is what you find in this one.

  10. Melissa says:

    McEwan has been very hit or miss for me. For everyone I’ve loved (Atonement) there’s been one I didn’t like (Enduring Love). I’ve read Amsterdam, Saturday, Black Dogs, On Chesil Beach, etc. but each time I don’t know if I’ll like or hate it.

    • Teresa says:

      That seems to be a common experience with McEwan. His good stuff is so good that I’ll keep trying, and out of the four I’ve read Saturday is the only one I didn’t like. At least a lot of his books are short!

  11. Juxtabook says:

    This is my least favourite McEwan, which is not to say, however, that I disliked it. I did feel a bit cheated by the glib ending. Knowing how it ends I might enjoy it more on a second read. I picked up a copy at my mother-in-law’s recently and read the first three chapters again and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Like you I did enjoy the musical insights, so definitely time to give it another go.

    • Teresa says:

      I can see how knowing the ending would make a second reading better as you can see how he builds to it. Hope the second read is indeed a pleasure!

  12. I loved parts of this, especially, as you did, the integration of music and creation. In fact the structure of the book reminded me of a symphony, the way that the theme was introduced and developed. Then again maybe all books do that, but all the talk of classical composition just put the comparison in my mind :-)

    The ending did not work for me AT ALL, though. I don’t want to give anything away for those who haven’t read it, but for me it just felt contrived. I think you make a good point about the Booker factor – it does raise expectations, perhaps unfairly so. For me this was a good book but not his best by a long way.

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