Study Guide

Atonement Tough-o-Meter

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(6) Tree Line

Atonement is a little more than mid-way up the mountain on the Shmoop tough-o-meter. The book was a bestseller, and it's got a lot of the things you'd expect in a bestseller—a plot that bangs along, a great love story, action, drama, excitement, and a writing style that can be both clear and just literary enough to thump you on the head.

"Finally he spoke the three simple words that no amount of bad art or bad faith can ever quite cheapen." (1.11.66)

Not quite as direct as a pop song, but it's got all the more kick for that.

On the other hand, though, the novel is fairly long and includes a lot of historical detail about England before and during World War II which may be unfamiliar—especially to American audiences. The evacuation of France at Dunkirk, which is the background for Part 2 of the novel, is an iconic event for a British writer like McEwan. But the exact mechanics of how and why the British Expeditionary force had to flee Hitler's army may be a little tricky to follow for those who didn't learn about it over and over in history classes growing up.

McEwan also makes a lot of allusions to other literature—names like Housman and Auden keep popping out of the pages like erudite (that's fancy for well-educated) groundhogs. And, speaking of erudite, McEwan's vocabulary can be pretty tricky at times. He'll use phrases like "pointillist approach to verisimilitude" (4.15), for example. That might set you back at first, but really McEwan's just saying that Briony's putting in a lot of details to make her stories seem real.

The book is something like a puzzle box: Events are shown, then re-shown from someone else's perspective. You never learn which version of an event is "true." This is part of the fun of the novel, though. It's a bit like a mystery, except instead of watching it get solved, you have to be Sherlock Holmes, minus the pipe and funny hat (or not—we'll leave that up to you). Not having Holmes to wrap up all the details in a pretty bow can be frustrating, but it's also satisfying when you figure out how things pop into place—or when you realize that they don't.

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