Amsterdam Summary

Ian McEwan


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Amsterdam Summary

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Amsterdam is British novelist Ian McEwan’s historical thriller detailing two friends who make a euthanasia pact—and whose relationship takes an ugly turn. The book, written in 1998, is a satirical, darkly funny examination of modern times and modern morality. McEwan, known for novels such as Atonement and Enduring Love, made The Times’s list of 50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945.

The novel opens with the sudden death of restaurant critic Molly Lane. She has developed an unspecified terminal illness that leads her to a rapid physical and mental decline. A number of Molly’s former lovers appear at her funeral, among them Clive Linley, a composer; Vernon Halliday, a news editor; and Julian Garmony, the British foreign secretary. They unanimously detest Molly’s husband, a publisher named George Lane who is pompous, dull, and wealthy.

At the funeral, Clive is struck with horror at the thought of undergoing a sudden deterioration in health the way Molly did. He decides it would be better to die than to suffer the way Molly must have suffered. On the spot, he asks his friend Vernon to agree to euthanize him if he is ever struck with a debilitating terminal illness. Vernon says he will, as long as Clive promises to do the same for him.

Later, George discovers a series of compromising photographs of Julian that were in Molly’s possession. It becomes clear that she and Julian were in the midst of an affair before her sudden illness. The photographs, clearly meant to be private, show Julian dressed in women’s clothing. Because Julian is a staunch right-winger who aspires to take over party leadership, these photographs would both humiliate him and end his ambitions.

George realizes he has an opportunity for revenge and profit: he can sell the photographs to Vernon’s paper, The Judge. Vernon is pushing the paper towards a sensationalistic brand of journalism to combat a dwindling readership. He is eager to publish these photographs for the sensation they would create.

Before making his decision, he talks to Clive about it. Clive is bitterly opposed to publishing the photographs of Julian, believing it is immoral to do so. Vernon argues that the photos of Julian cross-dressing would expose Julian’s hypocrisy: he has spoken out against alternative sexual identities and “lifestyles.” And, Vernon believes, preventing Julian from ever becoming Prime Minister would save the country from the years of damage his stringent views would cause. Clive is unmoved. He argues that it would be wrong to humiliate Julian—or anyone—over their private sexual practices. Besides, he sees publication as a betrayal of Molly and her own privacy.

This is the beginning of a rift in their friendship. Clive feels that Vernon is willing to sacrifice his morals, while Vernon sees Clive as a shortsighted man who cannot appreciate the long-term consequences for good that publication would bring.

Just before the photos are due to be published, Julian’s wife, Rose, holds a press conference. She reveals one of the photos herself, announces she will be standing by her husband, and denounces Vernon for attempting to destroy his career. Vernon’s staff turns on him, and he is forced to resign from the newspaper. Before Vernon’s resignation, Clive sends a card saying that Vernon ought to be fired—but the card does not arrive until after Vernon’s resignation, so he interprets the card as a cruel joke. Vernon begins to darkly contemplate his former euthanasia pact with Clive and plans a revenge involving the pro-euthanasia laws in the Netherlands.

Innocent of Vernon’s scheming, Clive takes a trip to the Lake District. He is trying to find the inspiration he needs to finish his Millennial Symphony. On a hike in the area, he witnesses a man attacking a woman, and chooses to do nothing. Inspiration has struck in the form of a birdsong, and he decides his symphony is more important than the woman, whom he does not know. When he returns home, he does not report the attack to the authorities because getting involved would distract him from his work.

He admits the truth to Vernon, however, and Vernon is disgusted at Clive’s inaction. Vernon realizes that Clive might have witnessed an attack from the Lakeland rapist, a serial criminal who is still at large, and insists that it is Clive’s moral obligation to report what he saw. Clive refuses, so Vernon reports to the police himself, explaining that Clive has witnessed an attack and withheld that information. Consequently, the police call Clive in to identify possible suspects in a line-up. That ends his involvement, but he is angry at Vernon nonetheless. Vernon, for his part, is annoyed that Clive did not suffer consequences for failing to report information to the police.

Now Clive, too, begins to plot a revenge on his former friend through their euthanasia pact. Each man travels to Amsterdam, where Clive’s symphony is scheduled to premiere, and they arrange to meet each other at a hotel. Each one hires a Dutch doctor and arranges to have the other killed.

They are, in the end, survived by Molly’s husband, George. After the funerals, he thinks of Vernon’s wife, whom he remembers once had a wild reputation, and he decides to call her for dinner.

Amsterdam won the 1998 Man Booker prize for literature. The New York Times called the book “a morality fable, disguised as a psychological thriller,” and other critics praised McEwan’s “compulsive” prose and control over his characters.