Book Review: Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

I finished reading Amsterdam last night and was tempted to write my review right away. Good thing I was feeling lazy. This is my second book by Ian McEwan. He has eight on my 1001 list. Before I say if I liked or hated it, here’s the synopsis from Goodreads:

On a chilly February day, two old friends meet in the throng outside a London crematorium to pay their last respects to Molly Lane. Both Clive Linley and Vernon Halliday had been Molly’s lovers in the days before they reached their current eminence: Clive is Britain’s most successful modern composer, and Vernon is editor of the newspaper The Judge.Gorgeous, feisty Molly had other lovers, too, notably Julian Garmony, Foreign Secretary, a notorious right-winger tipped to be the next prime minister.

In the days that follow Molly’s funeral, Clive and Vernon will make a pact with consequences that neither could have foreseen. Each will make a disastrous moral decision, their friendship will be tested to its limits, and Julian Garmony will be fighting for his political life. A sharp contemporary morality tale, cleverly disguised as a comic novel, Amsterdam is “as sheerly enjoyable a book as one is likely to pick up this year” (The Washington Post Book World).

When I read the last page last night, my initial reaction was, “What a horrible book.” I emailed The Better Half, who read it earlier this year and recommended it, and said, “Really, that was the end?” I won’t tell you the end, but it made me mad and disgusted me. I couldn’t believe it. TBH loved the book and we discussed it later in the evening. I was still in the mood to hate it.

Today I’m realizing that the book is pretty good. I didn’t like any of the characters in the novel. I’m not the type of reader who has to connect or like the characters to enjoy a book. Clive and Vernon were annoying to me from the beginning, but something kept me reading. McEwan has a tendency of going on and on when it comes to detail. However, I don’t mind it as much when he does it. I notice it, but it doesn’t grate on my nerves like some authors.

If I hated it last night, why do I like it today? Because I keep thinking about it. Not many novels make me ponder longer than an hour or so. I have a feeling it will be a while before I forget this one. It’s not a horror novel by any means, but it did scare me. The characters are vile, and yet they are the type of people we may know in real life. That’s terrifying to me. This book got under my skin. It annoyed me. Angered me. Made me want to throw it across the room. For those reasons, I say it’s a good book. It’s not the type of book for everyone, but if you can stomach it, you may feel the same way.

McEwan won the Man Booker Prize for this novel in 1998. I can see why. Now that I’m done, I need something lighter. Up next is Emma by Jane Austen.

About TBM

TB Markinson is an American who's recently returned to the US after a seven-year stint in the UK and Ireland. When she isn't writing, she's traveling the world, watching sports on the telly, visiting pubs in New England, or reading. Not necessarily in that order. Her novels have hit Amazon bestseller lists for lesbian fiction and lesbian romance. She cohosts the Lesbians Who Write Podcast ( with Clare Lydon. TB also runs I Heart Lesfic (, a place for authors and fans of lesfic to come together to celebrate lesbian fiction.
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65 Responses to Book Review: Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

  1. Now that was an intriguing review. You hate it, but you love it, and you wanted to throw it across the room. Actually I think that’s the sign of a great author. He made you react! He made you feel, and he made you keep thinking after you closed the book. Hmmm, I may have to add this to my list :). It’s too short you know LOL!

  2. Hmmmmm–now you have me wanting to read it, as well.

    By the way, I got started on Marionette last night. I’m loving it!

    Hugs from Ecuador,

    • TBM says:

      If you can handle a book that makes you hate people, then I suggest this one.

      Oh, I’m so glad you’re liking Marionette! Thanks for the update. It’s fun to hear people’s reactions as they read it. Some have emailed me for clues about the end. I won’t spill!

  3. bulldog says:

    Do I read it, do I want to, should I leave it, … I think by your reaction the author must be good…

  4. ilargia64 says:

    I agree…If a book makes you feel something, and stays with you it is a good book..!!! You said you hated the characters…And that they were people you could meet on the real world…May be that is the scaring thing…To look at reality from outside…He is good! He truly knows people and is able to translate that onto white pages…:)

  5. Beth Ann says:

    Hmm—you hated it then you loved it. I guess if you couldn’t get it out of your mind that is an indication, huh??? A good writer in a creepy way–that made me laugh! Happy International Label Day to you—-what’s your label??? 🙂

  6. lulu says:

    I have the book but have not yet read it. Your review makes me want to get right to it. I am anxious to see what you say about Emma.

    • TBM says:

      It’s one of two novels by Austen that I haven’t read yet. I’m looking forward to it. I hope you enjoy Amsterdam and would love to know your thoughts on it.

  7. Kudos to finishing. Those types tend to push me outside my comfort zone which can be good but sometimes your heart gets damaged a bit to heal up better in the end 🙂

  8. restlessjo says:

    You’ve got my curiosity piqued now. Reading the blurb I could have said it was my kind of book, but from your reaction I’m not so sure now. If I come across it in the library I’ll pick it up and browse. 🙂
    I don’t read so much these days, and my current read has taken me ages to get into, probably because I’m not fond of the characters. But I’m not a quitter and it’s starting to connect with me.

  9. Vishy says:

    Wonderful review, TBM! Thanks for the spoiler-free review and for not revealing the ending 🙂 I am thinking of reading it soon. But I also realize that I should be in a brave mood to read it – I don’t have a problem if one or two characters in a story are vile, but if most of them are that way, it is hard for me to read. But I hope to read it sometime soon and find out what I think about it.

    • TBM says:

      I would love to know what you think of this one Vishy. Clive and Vernon, on the surface seem like normal chaps. But then when you get inside their heads, you learn who they really are. And even though they aren’t serial killers, I wouldn’t want to know them in real life.

  10. The ending of Atonement put me off so much, I vowed to never read another McEwan novel. I do like books that make me think, but not the ones I want to hurl across the room after reading them. I’ll probably be keeping that vow. 🙂

  11. lynnsbooks says:

    This one has had very mixed reviews and it’s not one I think I will pick up. I’ve read a couple of others by this author but this one doesn’t appeal and now I’ve read your review, although you’ve turned around a little I must confess I struggle with books where I don’t like the characters.
    I hope you enjoy Emma. A different read completely I think.
    Lynn 😀

    • TBM says:

      I’m hoping Emma won’t have the same effect. Amsterdam turned my stomach. I could use some Austen and her witty look at her own society. At least in her novels, we know who we aren’t supposed to like.

  12. Don’t think I’ve ever heard of this book, or even the author, before. If nothing else, the writing must be pretty powerful for it to create that kind of reaction in you!

  13. Vile characters, eh? Sound like my type. I just checked this book out on Amazon. It’s 208 pages and available used for a penny — but $3.99 for shipping. I’m considering making the $4 investment. I’m traveling next month. When I fly I have been known to occasionally read a book.

    • TBM says:

      Too bad we aren’t neighbors. You could take my copy, as long as you give it back. will you be on holiday or is it a work thing? Do any of the one cent books qualify for free shipping if you add some DVDs? That’s how Amazon always got me–order more so I don’t have to pay for shipping.

      • Holiday, or as we call it on this side of the pond, vacation. I didn’t notice anyone offering free shipping on this for a penny purchase. Paying $34.99 more to get it for one cent strikes me as a tad penny wise but dollar dumb, but I try to buy most of my Xmas presents on Amazon for their shipping deal. Once this time of year comes around I try to avoid setting foot in brick and mortar stores until January.

      • TBM says:

        Vacation–has such a nice ring to it. Hope you have a blast and share your adventures.

        I’m not much of a shopper at all and this time of year really turns me off from venturing into any stores. People just aren’t nice when they are shopping. No holiday cheer. Just bah humbug!

  14. I’ve not yet read anything by Ewan McEwan, but I should really go and add a title of his to my TBR list. I think I’ll do so right now 😉

  15. Gede Prama says:

    My love be your friend in all journey

  16. Jo Bryant says:

    Interesting. I might give it a miss. I really didn’t like Atonement. However I am really enjoying the book I am reading at the moment. You might have heard of it “Marionette” !!!!! Just finished chapter 12. But I have to put it down for now. The sun is shining, and Chevvy needs a walk, as do I. Might curl up in bed with it later.

    • TBM says:

      I think you are the second one to comment that you didn’t like Atonement and that one is on my 1001 list. Not good news, since I trust both of you and your opinions. I’ll do my best to keep an open mind.

      So glad to hear you are liking Marionette–I think I’ve heard of it 😉 I wish Miles could join you and Chevvy. The sun isn’t shining here at all. He loves to feel the sun on his back, especially now that he’s getting older. He’ll lay in the sun all day even when he gets hot he won’t move. He’ll stay there panting, smiling the whole time. The dog worships the sun. He should have lived in California. Hope you had a nice walk. I’m curious to know what you think of the end of Marionette.

      • Jo Bryant says:

        I am at the part where Paige and Tom meet at the Matisse exhibition. I am really loving this book…really loving it. God you are good. The characters are all so real. Not a cliche to be found. And thrilled with the fact that so far I have not noticed one editing mishap. Not even a comma out of place. I am a bit picky with that. All these people who self publish and think it is okay to put out books nowhere near ready for publishing drive me insane. You are my absolute best find of 2013 !!!!!

        Poor Miles. it must be hard. I understand though. The older I get the less I like the cold too. Though it has been so hot here so suddenly I am finding that hard…though having all the doors and windows open for a breeze just makes me smile. Charlie has been finding a shady space on the concrete to cool off.

        Okay off to make coffee, then I have a day planned squeezing lemons and freezing loads of icecubes. My tree is full and I need to clean it out before they all drop. That way I have lemon juice for the summer. I already have 3 bags of grapefruit and half a bag of lime. I am also going to try drying some coriander. My plants are taking over…like the Triffids…hehehehehe.

      • TBM says:

        Thanks so much for the kind words. I’m the opposite. The older I get the more I like the cold. My body doesn’t not handle heat well at all. However, having the doors and windows open and feeling a breeze does sound delightful. I hope your lemon juice and coriander is working out. Sounds like fun project. Your garden is thriving this year. I love it.

  17. I liked it, but I like McEwan. Not sure whether I have that one or the whacky one about the balloon..

    Can’t bear Austen, but I suppose anything is better than P&P so Emma is bearable. Think I did that for A level. My last post but one has a number of book reviews. Potter, Tolkien, and some others. I do them from time to time as the mood takes me. Crime ones will be up next.

    • TBM says:

      Not sure I know the one about the balloon. Will need to look into it.

      Ooooo…I’ve been in the crime thriller mood. Looking forward to your post.

  18. Caroline says:

    I find I either love or hate his books, mostly I have strong reactions, so I’m not surprised this one wasn’t immediately a winner. The Comfort of Strangers was beyond disgusting but I loved Atonement, inlcuding the end.

    • TBM says:

      Beyond disgusting. I’m not sure I want to find out what that means, but I have a feeling it’s on my list. You are the first to say you like the end of Atonement. I think he’s a great writer, but he makes me uncomfortable at times.

  19. westiedad says:

    Wow – this book definitely gets a reaction. Hopefully that’s a good sign!

    • TBM says:

      I ended up enjoying it, but I can see why other’s don’t. He’s a difficult author since he puts the reader through an emotional ringer but it’s done subtly so it kinda hits you all of a sudden

  20. I think I have blocked most of this book from my memory (although I could have just forgotten because I did read it a while ago). I do have a memory of absolutely hating it though!

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