Saturday 1 September 2012

The Best and Worst of Ian McEwan

My first Ian McEwan novel was 'Enduring Love'.

I picked it up in the summer sales 1999 and started reading it whilst lying on Coogee Beach. It was love at first word!

The first few chapters of 'Enduring Love' just blew me away. The ballooning accident was the most engrossing, absorbing thing I had read for quite some time. I was so caught up in the drama of it, that I completely lost all sense of time and place.

When I finally caught my breath and looked up, I was totally discombobulated. I had forgotten that I was lying on a beach towel in the middle of January...I looked up expecting to see English countryside and a huddle of people in despair about a hot air balloon!

What followed was a psychological thriller that didn't quite live up to the expectations built by the initial chapters. It was disturbing, uncomfortable but (dare I say) a little long-winded.

A few years later, 'Atonement' appeared in the shops. Again I was on holidays, spotted a book sale, remembered the impact of the first chapters of 'Enduring Love' and impulse bought 'Atonement'.

This was more my thing. Historical fiction, family drama, perspective, memory, truth and lies. All the stuff that makes compelling reading for me. I loved 'Atonement' from start to finish.

The finish! OMG! The finish! What an ending.

A decade later I still remember the shock and the thrill of the deceit McEwan used to create the OMG moment. I loved it. McEwan was now my new favourite (living) author.

I had all sorts of good intentions to read his backlist, but I never did.

Then 'Saturday' came out. I read it with high expectations. The scene with the home invaders and the daughter was terrifying and gut-wrenching, but ultimately I was disappointed. And my memory can recall nothing else from the book.

'On Chesil Beach' failed to capture my imagination at all, except for the beach itself. I bought the book to read on the plane from Sydney to London. Beforehand I had researched where Chesil Beach was and realised, that with a small detour, it could be en route from London to Lyme Regis.

Chesil Beach is amazing (check out my earlier post). The pebbles, the inlet formed by the tides, the wind!
But the book left me colder than the southerly blowing across Chesil Beach they day we visited!

A friend has since suggested that it's a book I might appreciate more as I get older, so I wont give up on it entirely. But for now, it is my "worst" Ian McEwan. I have no recollection of anything about the book, other than the lovely cover. I left it behind in a B & B somewhere near Hadrian's Wall!

Then there was 'Solar'.
What can I say about 'Solar' that hasn't already been said?

Because of 'Atonement', I kept trying the new McEwan's.
But I didn't like 'Solar' at all. I read it from start to finish, thinking that somehow the character, Michael Beard, would redeem himself, find god, come a cropper or get what he deserved....or something!!

However, like real life, the obnoxious, selfish person never learnt from his mistakes. 

Beard blamed others, lied and cheated to get what he wanted at all costs as he bounced from one disaster to the next, unable to see his own role in the drama that was his life. After putting up with Beard's awful ways for the entire book McEwan then denied us the showdown!

Just as Beard was about the get his comeuppance, the book ended.

I was furious, but also secretly delighted to be so engaged/enraged by a book. I suspect that may have been McEwan's intentions all along.

Finally we come to 'Sweet Tooth'.

Even after all the disappointments, I still found myself excited by the sight of a new McEwan.

'Sweet Tooth' is not McEwan at his best...but it's not his worst either.

'Sweet Tooth's back cover prepares us for a spy story. Espionage, Cold War conspiracy and a hint of romance! But sadly none of these themes really take flight.

I didn't really care about the ethically dilemma that Serena found herself involved in. I didn't care whether the romance between Serena and Tom worked out or not. I didn't care that Tom was being 'used' by MI5 and that - surprise, surprise - book awards could be rigged, influenced and compromised by outside forces!

I'm not sure what the point of 'Sweet Tooth' was. McEwan's writing style is engaging enough, but as the years go by it seems that his characters are becoming less likeable and his plots less interesting. Over-rated is the word running through my mind right now.

The intensity and soul-searching of 'Enduring Love' & 'Atonement' is missing.
And I for one, miss it.

My 2016 review for Amsterdam is here.


  1. It's always so disappointing when an author doesn't live up to your expectations. It's interesting that you loved Atonement so much. I really couldn't get into it- I only managed about 30 pages, before losing complete interest and packing up. I've read a few McEwans- mainly his early stuff, but it's all a bit hazy. I think- Amsterdam, Grace Notes and maybe some others. I did read On Chesil Beach in the last year and wasn't wowed. I still want to read Saturday.

  2. This is such a terrific critical review and thoughtful assessment of the McEwan oeuvre. I find him to be an author that amazingly wows a reader and can also leave you right in the dumpster. In fact, no author I know of is more consistently inconsistent. I've read all of these ones you mention [except the new one, Sweet Tooth] and also Amsterdam, The Child In Time, and The Innocent. As well as his collections of short stories. In my reviews of all of these I have said pretty much what you are saying here. To summarize:
    I love it.
    I hate it.

    As you do, I think Atonement and Enduring Love are fabulous. Saturday -- as you say, nothing MEMORABLE about it, except maybe that home invasion scene. Solar -- disappointing, I agree. The only area I might differ from your opinion is about On Chesil Beach, which I thought was really great. About a year after reading it, I re-read the last 50 pages or so and was still profoundly emotionally moved by the story. It so positively reeks of the importance of communication in relationships.
    All in all -- you've really nailed it here. McEwan, a terrific writer, is hit and miss.
    And I would advise you to not even give his short story books a chance -- they are very unintelligible, and so weird [in a disturbing way] that really...... don't read them.

    1. Thanks for the heads up about the short stories! I still plan to read Amsterdam one day, but I don't think I will feel a great deal excitement at the prospect of another new McEwan.

  3. I know you commented on my review of Atonement quite a while ago, but I am just getting around to comparing notes. I really enjoyed it, and I find the author quite intriguing. My next by Waugh will be A Handful of Dust, though I won't get to it for quite a while. I'm looking forward to it, partially from my own experience and partially from your comments regarding Waugh's works.

  4. Anonymous16/9/17

    I've avoided Solar because I've heard from other readers how disappointing it was. Saturday was my first disappointing read from him as well; nothing was memorable for me there, and it sort of lost me after a while (and I don't recall liking the main character at all, or at least intrigued enough to follow the story through). I had high expectations for Sweet Tooth but that too dribbled down to o-kay. I don't remember, have you read The Children Act and Nutshell? I find he came back to form with those two.

    1. I haven't got to The Children Act and Nutshell yet, the fear of disappointment, I guess, but I have heard good things (or at least interesting things) about both. One review suggested that you could imagine Stewie from Family Guy as the foetus in Nutshell, which curiously, made the book more appealing! (I say curiously because Family Guy is not one of my preferred TV programs.)


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