Book Review: Atonement by Ian McEwan

by Jenn (eating bender) on September 28, 2011

There isn’t much of a pattern with the books I read. One minute I’ll be engrossed in young adult dystopia, the next I’ll be pinning every book by Emily Giffin. I am generally open to all genres, perspectives and subject matter. There are books that are perfect pick-me-ups, ones that I may not think twice about reading again, but nevertheless enjoyed. And then there are books that keep me thinking about them for hours, days or even weeks after I finished the last page.

Atonement by Ian McEwan definitely falls into the latter category.

In Short

Add this book to your to-read list if you are interested in books that explore psychology and how we interact with one another. It is also a fierce romance, the kind that is poetic without being over-the-top, obvious without being sappy. I would also read this book if you enjoy historical fiction. Ian McEwan’s descriptions of World War II were incredible and humbling, both from the perspective of the soldiers and those who stayed behind.

The Details

This book was deeply psychological. Told from the perspective of three people — two of them sisters, the third a young man who is the love interest of the older sister — it shows how our sometimes skewed perceptions of how and why people behave the way they do can have lasting consequences. The youngest sister, Briony, has a wild imagination. Upon seeing the interaction between her sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of their family’s servant, she conjures a story that ultimately brings about a horrific crime, dramatically altering the course of all three of their lives.

McEwan breaks the book down into four parts: the first part describes in great detail the summer night in 1935 that would change everything; the second and third parts follow the characters into World War II; and the closing part of the novel takes place at the end of the twentieth century.

It was an emotional read that took me longer to get through than I expected, not because I wasn’t interested, but rather because it was so detailed and descriptive that I felt I had to take everything in slowly, so as not to miss anything. I wouldn’t call it a page-turner in the suspenseful sense of the word, but it was certainly a book that I did not want to put down and I was eager to discover the ending.

Personally, this book caused a lot of reflection in my own writing. I realized through reading it that there are so many ways to get to know a character beyond dialogue. It inspired me to further consider how action and inaction can be significant in character development. What a character does not do can sometimes be even more meaningful, especially if, by the end of the book, they undergo a change that allows them to overcome this inability to act. There is a certain sense of pride and “you did it!” cheer felt by the reader whenever the characters we’ve grown close to over the course of 300 pages are finally able to muster up the courage to do what we knew they had in them all along.

Hopefully it’s not just me who gets that excited. πŸ˜‰

Overall, I think this was one of the most captivating books I’ve read this year. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I have continued to think about it and the characters involved, which is definitely the exception, not the norm.


Have you read Atonement? Seen the movie?

I’m very curious as to how it will compare. The movie is typically not as good, in my opinion, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy watching it. Especially when it has a great cast!

Thanks to my friend Lauren for the book suggestion. More about her in my next post…


1 Andrea of Care to Breed September 28, 2011 at 10:52 pm

This might sound weird, but Atonement (the movie) has one of the best sex scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie. It’s not graphic, but the way it’s acted and portrayed is really emotional. I’ve been wanting to read the book for a while now – this post is kicking my butt into gear. Placing a hold at the library…!

2 Jenn (eating bender) September 28, 2011 at 11:20 pm

Not weird at all — I like the way you think. In all seriousness, I am glad to hear it because that means it lives up to the way it’s portrayed in the book. Let me know once you end up reading it…the whole book, not just that chapter. πŸ˜‰

3 Megan (Braise The Roof) September 29, 2011 at 9:55 am

I didn’t see the movie or read the book, but I totally agree that I usually like the book better. Especially if the novel isn’t dialogue heavy- sometimes things just don’t translate well to the screen. It’s how I felt about Revolutionary Road! Great cast, phenomenal acting, but…it just didn’t live up to the book!

4 Stephanie September 29, 2011 at 9:55 am

I really loved this book until the very end. I was apparently wanting a neatly tied up happy ending, so it was kind of a kick in the teeth. Then again, according to, I read it around the same time as I Am Number 4 and The Bread Givers, so I was probably hoping for a happy ending after those. I haven’t seen the movie though…

5 Amanda @ Fashionably Plate September 29, 2011 at 12:17 pm

I’ve seen the movie and love it! The cast is really great which makes a huge difference. Never read the book though, perhaps I should give it a look!

6 Melissa @ TryingToHeal September 29, 2011 at 3:33 pm

I’ve seen the movie and read the book and think they are both really really great. The actors in the movie did a wonderful job of playing the emotions from the book and you’ll seriously be just as hooked on the movie as you were the book.

7 broccolihut September 29, 2011 at 8:23 pm

My senior year English teacher LOVED Ian McEwan and always recommended him to me, but I never got around to reading his books. Guess I need to get on that!

8 Alexandra Rogers September 30, 2011 at 3:23 pm

I’ve never read this but I’ve been looking for a good book to read! Thank you for the recommendation.

9 Cara (Twinthusiast) September 30, 2011 at 7:50 pm

I loved this book (and was disappointed by the movie). Nice review Jenn!

10 Get Up & Go October 2, 2011 at 1:40 pm

I have not seen or read atonement… I want to though….

I am totally like you in regards to reading. I just finished Tina Fey’s Bossypants and am now on to a history of coffee book….I’ve got book A.D.D…..haha.

Get Up & Go

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