What I’ve Been Reading – Amsterdam

So I’m risking a lot with this post – they might kick me out of the “pretending to be a literary snob” club – but I just read Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam (winner of the Booker Prize, England’s top literary award) and I have just one question.

What I’ve read:

Amsterdam – Ian McEwan

Was it a down year for novels? Because I can’t, for the life of me, figure out how this is award-worthy.

Ian McEwan - AmsterdamIt’s funny. I typically, without fail, love award winning books. If you look at my ten favorite books of the past ten years, five Pulitzers are accounted for (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, and John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom [which accounts for two: Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest]).

And that’s not even putting another favorite – The Grapes of Wrath – in the top ten.

But Amsterdam fell flat for me. Really flat. Though, because I’m a novice book reviewer and self-taught critic, I have trouble expressing what exactly it was that I found so…well…


Amsterdam is a nice novel. It’s well written. It’s at times haughty, at times funny. It’s everything you’d want in a quick summer read, I guess – intrigue, death, sex, newspapers and grand orchestras. Maybe not so much of those last two, but a lot of the first three.

The story is simple – one woman dies, three ex-lovers meet, two of the ex-lovers plot revenge against the third. The two are a newspaper editor and a composer, the third is an aspiring Prime Minister.

The newspaper person gets some naughty pictures of the aspiring Prime Minister. The composer isn’t sure it’s such a good idea. Hilarity ensues.

Except that’s not what happens. No hilarity ensues – in fact, all we get is a desperate attempt by the newspaper person to slander the aspiring Prime Minister, while (despite a distracting and seemingly unrelated interruption) the composer continues to compose.

It’s a morality tale, or so I’m told. I just read it because it seemed quick, and because I absolutely adored McEwan’s Atonement – another great novel I’ve read in the past ten years. And, upon finishing it, when I had finally figured out how silly and contrived the ending of the book was, I put the book down and just sat there.

Not in wonder, as I have with great books, but in confusion.

I thought this guy was otherworldly. This book seems so pedestrian.

Which, I guess, leads to another question.

Am I missing something?

This was lovingly handwritten on April 30th, 2009