Round Rock New Neighbors is a social organization of women welcoming women in the Round Rock area since 1978. Both "new" and "old" neighbors are welcome. For more information: rrnewneighbors.org [Barnes & Noble requires that RRNN's book club be open to the public, so you do not need to be an RRNN member to attend book club, and both men and women are welcome and do attend. ]
The Friends of the Georgetown Public Library’s Hill Country Authors Series events will be listed here.
Round Rock Public Library Book Group meets monthly at 7:00-8:30 PM. Check the library website for more information, or ask Carla.
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Was the Atonement in Atonement Atoned?
Atonement, by Ian McEwan, is a complex book, complete with book-within-a-book, seeming truths that are later called fictitious, drama, dramatic personalities, and misleading clues about aspects of the story. It is a book that demands close reading, with single sentences that direct the story line nestled among long detailed sections. Thanks to Linda for giving us some questions to ponder while reading Atonement! Previewing the questions helped me with focus and understanding as I read.
As a mixture of disclaimer and acceptance of responsibility, I will say that during our meeting, there seemed to me to be more than the usual of multiple conversations going on at the same time, and that this was probably my fault. I attempted to simultaneously perform as the designated substitute leader of this discussion as well as the note-taker. Note to self (Twin Peaks, anyone?) and group: it takes one to run the discussion and another to take notes.
Here are the questions and some of the notes that turned up on my computer after the discussion:
The most important question to start with is whether you enjoyed reading this work? Many people refer to McEwan as Ian Macabre.
Marla was angry when she finished the book. Why? The situation, especially as second-time reader, knowing about what was supposedly real and what wasn’t and all the things that don’t fall together in these people’s lives, gave her a sense of despair.
Pam said that the book is dark and that she wondered why anyone would want to read it. Although she didn't hate the book, she said she expected more from the end but that it didn't click for her.
Rod thought it was interesting that McEwan showed how powerful fiction is: even though the story isn't true, everyone gets into it, readers as well as the characters. Rod got angry at the end of the book because of the happy part of the story not being true.
Cindy V. was interested in reading Atonement because author James Magnuson, who visited our group last month, said McEwan was one of his favorite authors. When she read Atonement, Cindy was surprised at Magnuson's compliments about the book.
Jay read a bunch of reviews of Atonement on the website, GoodReads. He said there were 25 quotes from the book posted on GoodReads. He said that the sentences seemed revolutionary out of context but not when he was reading the book.
Who is the narrator of this story? Why do you think McEwan hides the fact that it is Briony until much later in the book?
Frank said there is a device in literature: the reliable or unreliable narrator. This book uses that literary device. Leaving the reader with doubt as to whether Briony, as narrator, is trustworthy is an example of this device. Was Briony repentant or making it up? Another example Frank gave to explain the point is that some books have plots with children accusing adults, as in Briony accusing Robbie of molesting Lola and Cecilia. There is often a question in these books (and there certainly was in Atonement) as to whether the child is really innocent.
And, what makes Atonement that much more complex than other books is that the reader didn't even know that Briony was the narrator, rather than the typical omniscient author, until the end of the book.
Personally, I found that because of seeing this question before reading the book, I thought of it often while reading, and it lent a mixture of wonder and understanding to my reading experience.
What must Briony atone for? How does she do it? Is the pen mightier than the sword?
Dennis asked, "Is the penitentiary mightier than the sword?"
Pam said it didn't seem that Briony felt guilty and that she never did atone for the troubles she caused.
Marla suggested that Briony was trying to make her readers feel that she felt guilty, especially by titling "her" book Atonement.
Carla felt that Briony's impending dementia was a cause of suffering for her.
What role does class play in the novel?
Carry said that when people have serious wealth, they might think their wealth takes care of everything; but the truth is that most everyone else knows it doesn’t.
Pam said that it didn’t seem that class was a big factor in this story, because the father in the wealthy family was supporting the maid's child, Robbie, all through his life.
Shirley though that class was important, in that Robbie was treated like part of the family but that it was made clear to the reader and everyone in the story that he really wasn’t part of the family. Briony was aware at some level even as a child and even though she accepted Robbie and had a crush on him for a while. The family maybe helps Robbie to rise out of the poor class, but Briony sends him back lower than ever. Later, as a nurse, Briony makes the French boy like her, to show she is atoning and being nice to someone she thinks is from a lower class.
Carla noted that Paul was of the wealthy class. This was a major theme of Paul throughout.
Rod brought up the topic of racial/class profiling. He said that just as police will stop a strong-looking black man on the road for no legal reason, people accepted Robbie as dangerous based on Briony's sketchy accusation. We had some further discussion here about To Kill a Mockingbird and whether/how Briony's and Scout's accusations are related.
Here we went off on a bit of a tangent about Briony's accusation of Robbie. Someone (Frank?) asked how soon after the searching the twins and Briony's accusation did Briony realize she made a mistake. At age 18, Briony narrates a tale of talking to Cecilia about officially and legally recanting her accusation to clear Robbie's name. I said that at age 11 Briony, as author, went into great detail about the time right after making the accusation, saying over and over that Briony (before the reader knew that Briony was the writer) was conflicted right away.
Joyce said that Briony's accusation and its consequences show an example of mob psychology, wherein the judicial system leaves a vulnerability for people to be convicted by such lies as what happened in Atonement.
Here we had another slight turn of direction to the conversation away from the original question but following the train of thought about the accusation. Shirley asked the group whether we thought Lola knew it was Marshall?
Carla: Lola knew.
Pam mentioned Emily, Briony's mother (and Lola's aunt) here. Emily's history includes her sister (Lola's mother) who had all the attention as a child (drama queen). Emily has headaches now, and there is an implication that they are a way for her to get attention (poor imitation of a drama queen). Pam suggested that Briony was making the accusation of Robbie to get attention, just like her Mom did things to get attention. Once she got the attention for being the one who had seen the supposed criminal, Briony liked the attention and stayed with her story rather than lose that limelight, even though she wasn't sure about the accusation. Pam was angry at end of the story that Briony received attention she didn’t deserve, even as an old woman.
Shirley said that the audience at the end hadn’t read Briony's book yet but might read it later and hate Briony.
What major themes is McEwan dealing with in this book? (guilt, loss of innocence, order, the power of writing.)
Janice opened the question as to whether Briony was possibly not motivated by jealousy but was really wanting to protect Cecilia.
Marla thought Briony knew what was happening and was jealous, partly because of her previous crush on Robbie and Cecilia's now claiming his romantic attention.
At the end, what does Briony face instead of death that is worse than death?
Carla said that Briony loses both her sister and Robbie, as they were dead without reuniting with her, and the scene that Briony wrote with the small potential for a reconnecting among them (and redemption) was fictitious.
Janice said that Briony was victim of own Victorian upbringing. She thought Briony was innocent of any understanding of what was happening between Robbie and Cecilia and the meanings of Robbie's note, because Briony didn’t know about sex and lust. But Briony did understand a lot about Lola being molested (and yet she didn't, did she?)
Marla mentioned noticing that Briony didn’t have fear.
Carla brought up the later plot twist where Lola married Paul.
Janice interjected that Lola liked rough sex. We got some comic relief from that statement, but the truth within the story wasn't really far from that; as Lola was apparently treated roughly by Paul (see section later about Paul's scratched face) and ended up marrying him. I asked whether the movie showed that Lola was mean to Paul during their marriage, maybe getting back at him all his life? Shirley said that the movie didn’t show Paul & Lola relating.
Our group read and discussed Atonement in 2008. The group had a few of the same members then as now. There is a summary of that discussion on the blog. Read it here. The biggest differences seemed to be that this time we analyzed the ending more closely and ended up more sure of the author's intent as to what really happened to Robbie and Cecilia, and that last time the movie was newly released and was a topic of discussion; whereas this time little was said about the movie.
If you read the previous blog summary of our discussion of Atonement, you might notice that someone in the book club disliked Ian McEwan's books (Ian Macabre). I looked through my old notes to see who this was. I couldn't find any reference to it! And I realized I wouldn't disclose it anyway, especially not online. I do try to be respectful; and of course, if you ever see anything you don't feel comfortable with on the blog, please let me know and I'll change it.
What I did find in my notes that I didn't write on the previous blog was insight about the scratches on Paul's face! I brought up the topic this time around, in 2015, and I apparently had taken notes on it and brought it up last time, too.
This time we discussed that Paul Marshall came back from searching for the twins on that fateful night (p. 223) and then in the next pages about the family and the search, there was no word of scratches on him. He gave the police cigarettes and then was just mentioned in passing as one of the people around the house during the next time period. Much later, when she goes to Paul and Lola's wedding (p. 417), Briony she remembers "...the scratches on Lola's shoulder and down Marshall's face..." So I asked at the meeting: Wouldn’t Paul have been implicated by scratches? I wondered whether it a fiction aspect, that the scratches weren’t there but that Briony is supposedly remembering them in the story she wrote?
Shirley said that maybe his face was scratched but he was above suspicion because of his class.
Carla said maybe Paul had actually bruised Lola before the dinner, before the twins left. And Carla was right, though I didn't realize during the meeting that she was speaking directly from the story and not just speculating. In my notes from our 2008 discussion, I have notes on Paul's scratches that begin on p. 149, where Lola shows Briony that her arms are chafed from the twins' supposedly twisting her skin. (I didn't see anything about shoulder, but it might be there.) Lola is extremely upset, and Briony wonders to herself how the little twin boys could bring Lola to such desolation. Then Briony rationalizes to herself that Lola has had a lot of family problems lately and so could be easily upset. At this time, Briony also enjoys a feeling of taking Lola under her wing; thus, Lola's early injuries feed Briony's ego. Then everyone goes to supper, and during the supper, on p. 161, Robbie notices to himself that Paul's face is scratched. Then the supper conversation involves the twins, Robbie, and Briony; all put together, this conversation causes the reader to be distracted from the twins' (and also Paul Marshall's) possible involvement in Lola's arm bruises. Then the twins disappear, etc.
Paul and Lola's marriage is an interesting twist to the whole story! Many twists!
By the way, Linda informs us that McEwan is leaving all his papers to the Harry Ransom Center. Yay! Article About the Archive Acquisition