Study Guide

Amsterdam

by Ian McEwan

Amsterdam Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

At a crematorium near London, family, friends, and lovers of Molly Lane are gathered to mark her death after her long, painful struggle with cancer. Her husband, George Lane, had decided to postpone a formal memorial service, in part because he is not ready to deal with Molly’s former lovers, exchanging knowing glances and comparing notes during the service. Among the mourners are former lovers Clive Linley, a composer, and Vernon Halliday, a newspaper editor, who are both deeply moved by Molly’s death; she was only forty-six years old.

Because Clive is no longer married nor in a long-term relationship, he is especially horrified that he could one day face unbearable suffering from something like terminal cancer without a friend or lover to help him escape his pain by accelerating his death. He persuades Vernon to become that friend in need, and the two agree to a sort of suicide pact. It is not their intention to join each other in dying, but merely to do whatever is possible to shorten the other’s life if that person is dying of a terminal disease.

George discovers among his wife’s personal belongings an envelope of photographs she took of Julian Garmony, the ultraconservative British foreign secretary, rumored to be considering the prime ministry. In the photographs, Garmony is shown as a cross-dresser. George gives Vernon the photographs, anticipating that Vernon will print them in his newspaper, the Judge, which is seeing a decline in circulation. This decline could be reversed by news of a high-ranking member of Her Majesty’s government cavorting in drag, imitating the seductive smile of a woman making herself sexually available. Vernon has a reputation for embarrassing public figures, having earned it through Pate-gate, the exposure of a U.S. president who used taxpayers’ money to buy a toupee. Eventually, it becomes clearer that Lane is plotting to get even with Garmony (yet another former lover of Molly) through this newest scandal; it is possible he is seeking vengeance against Vernon as well. Given the more liberal climate of the 1990’s, the devious George anticipates that public sentiment may well turn against Vernon for exposing Garmony’s kinky pastime.

Meanwhile, Clive, the composer, who is approaching the end of his career, has been commissioned to write another piece of music, already talked about as his “millennial symphony.” At Molly’s funeral gathering, Clive is pressed into being introduced to Julian, who asks how the composition is coming and adds that the commission had been decided at the cabinet level, where he supported it. Given the public pressure, Clive wants to compose something similar to Ludwig van Beethoven’s monumental Ninth Symphony, a massive expression of the mastery of Beethoven’s art. Clive hopes that his own creation will bring to fruition all he has written before, and help to find him a place in the pantheon of great twentieth century composers. He has completed much of the composition but needs a theme for the finale. Deciding that a change of venue might stimulate his creative imagination, he visits the Lake District of northwest England, a lovely vacation spot similar to the Finger Lakes of upstate New York.

One day while out for a walk, Clive has his moment of inspiration and feels he is close to grasping his central theme. He encounters what he first thinks is a married couple having a disagreement; soon,...

(The entire section is 1396 words.)

Amsterdam Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Despite mixed reviews—The Washington Post thought it a “minor work,” while the Christian Science Monitor called it “a deadly little masterpiece”—Amsterdam won the prestigious 1998 Man Booker Prize for the best British Commonwealth or Irish novel of 1998.

At the funeral of their former lover, Molly Lane, Clive Linley, a composer, and Vernon Halliday, a London newspaper editor, are so frightened by the horror of suffering a slow death from a fatal disease with no one to assist their suicide that they agree to be each other’s Dr. Death, if needed. Aware of Molly’s infidelity with Vernon (and Clive), her husband, George, offers Vernon photographs of Adrian Garmony, an ultraconservative foreign secretary with ambitions of becoming prime minister. George assumes Molly took photographs of Garmony in women’s clothes and expects Vernon to embarrass Garmony by printing the photographs to boost circulation. If there is a backlash against Vernon for exposing Garmony, George will be avenged on both.

Struggling to complete a “Millennial Symphony” he expects to cap his career, as the Ninth Symphony capped Ludwig von Beethoven’s, Clive goes to the Lake District. There, he encounters a couple having what he initially thinks is a rural assignation but eventually recognizes as an attempted rape. When he refuses to intervene because he is about to grasp the musical theme to complete his great...

(The entire section is 488 words.)