Amsterdam

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AmsterdamAmsterdam by Ian McEwan
Published: 1999
Length: 192 pages
Awards: 1998 Man Booker Prize Winner

Amsterdam opens at Molly Lane’s memorial as two of her past boyfriends reminisce and pay their respects. One is the lead editor of a struggling newspaper and the other a revered composer. A third suitor, a right-wing politician, is also attending, and after the funeral the three become entangled in each other’s lives in very destructive ways.

Middle-age angst is a central theme here, with the characters facing different stages of their careers. The editor is pushing for success and feels he can achieve it with a story that lies in very grey moral ground, and the composer has already found a lot of success in his career and is struggling with maintaining it. In doing so he also finds himself in a, much less grey, moral quandary. This is a novel about hard choices and what drives different people in their decisions, and the main plot point is oddly more relevant today than it was when this was written.

“You’re the composer?” Vera or Mini asked.

“That’s right.”

“It’s a great honor, Mr. Linley. My eleven-year-old granddaughter studied your sonatina for her final exam in violin and really loved it.”

“That’s very nice to know.”

The thought of children playing his music made him feel faintly depressed.

Molly died fairly young and needed invasive care at the end of her life. The two men, not wanting to live through the same undignified end, enter into a pact with each other; if either end up in a similar position, they want the other to guide them to the Netherlands in order to end their life through euthanasia.

I’m very much in support of physician-assisted death, and I found it a little odd how carelessly McEwan handled the matter in this book. Having no prior knowledge, a reader would come out of this thinking anyone with suicidal thoughts could stroll into Amsterdam, have a plate full of hemlock pannekoeken for breakfast, and be done with it, which quite obviously isn’t the case. Out of curiosity, I Googled Ian McEwan’s views on the matter after reading, wondering if he was against the act and maybe decided to weave in a little fear-mongering. I was a little shocked to find that he not only supports assisted dying, he actively campaigns to legalize it in England. I wonder if he wishes he had handled the topic a bit more responsibly in this book.

While much of this is quite dark and heavy stuff, it reads lighter than you’d think and is quite funny at times. McEwan writes very simply while still being able to convey complex ideas and emotions. The characters are deeply flawed in somewhat believable ways, and I loved the little snarky observations they were making. Unfortunately, the ending did fall short for me. There was a major shift in how the characters acted, almost becoming darkly slapstick, but it just didn’t ring true for me at all.

Sunday coffee and Amsterdam by Ian McEwan. #AmReading

A post shared by Rob McMillan (@mcmillan) on

This was my second Ian McEwan novel. Of the two, I preferred Atonement, but this was still really enjoyable.

4 thoughts on “Amsterdam

  1. Silvia

    Wow, what a topic, like you say, I have never read anything like this.
    I would have been upset with characters changing and becoming not real in the end.
    It has a beautiful cover.

    Reply
    1. Rob Post author

      Yeah, the ending just felt rushed to me. I think it was supposed to be shocking and funny, but it just left me feeling “meh”, which isn’t a great final impression to be left with.

      I do like the cover too.

      Reply
    1. Rob Post author

      Thanks!

      The assisted death aspect of the novel is more of a looming background theme that I found interesting. I’d say the main topic is more about ethics in journalism, which is obviously quite relevant these days too.

      Reply

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