During the summer of 1935, Briony Tallis is standing on the brink of adulthood. She is beginning to notice the world around her but she doesn't quite understand it. She is frustrated by her cousin's unwillingness to listen to her and she is confused by the flirtation between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie, the son of a servant. In a moment of naive youth and misunderstanding, Briony accuses Robbie of an act he did not commit. But her lies, malicious or not, have repercussions that no one could have predicted.
The overall plot of Atonement is, in actuality, very simple. But McEwan takes this simple plot and infuses it with heart. Briony, Cecilia, and Robbie start the novel as entirely fleshed out people. They seem so real, their emotions and motivations so clear, that it is almost as if they could walk off the page. As the novel drags on, Cecilia's voice is lost when McEwan decides to no longer narrate from her perspective. That may be one of the reasons that Part One is the most striking section of the book. It is beautifully written--taking the time to really explore the ideas of misunderstanding, intentions, and transformations. McEwan does not take the easy route in this novel, instead he creates an honest and real story. He does not simply paint Briony as this villainous, self-centered monster nor does he portray Robbie and Cecilia as wounded victims.
The second and third parts seem to loose focus--McEwan takes a lot of time and many pages to recount monotonous details about military and nursing life during World War II. The story of Cecilia and Robbie becomes a bit lost. In the end of Part Three and in Part Four, the story refocuses its lens away from war and death to the main trio. The ending speaks to our desire for happy endings in a world filled with tragedy. Briony needs Robbie and Cecilia to be together. She needs their love to be stronger than the pain of war and the consequences of her actions. She needs to atone for her actions. We like to think that we abandon the need for fairy-tale endings when we grow up.
Atonement is a difficult read. I tried it once before. I even remember reading it while I waited in line to get my driver's license. It's only been three years but I read the book completely differently. It's probably because I matured a bit--because I know for a fact that it's pretty much stayed the same. It is a hard book to tackle but in the end it is so rewarding. It challenges readers to think about the things we take for granted--like the moment when our unconscious thought becomes action--and to think complexly about the world around us.