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Last Updated on February 25, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1024


Amsterdam is an unsettling novel by Ian McEwan about death and control. The book is divided into five parts, labeled "I" through "V."

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Plot Summary


The first part of the novel introduces the two main characters, tabloid newspaper editor Vernon Halliday and composer Clive Linley, as they lament the death of photographer and writer Molly Lane. The two men express regret at the way Molly died: she suffered from cancer and became a "prisoner" of her husband and caretaker, George. Vernon and Clive are old friends and both men were romantically involved with Molly at different points. Another former lover of Molly's is also at the funeral: Foreign Secretary Julian Garmony. There is animosity between Julian, Clive, and George. After the funeral, Clive starts working on his masterpiece: the millennial symphony. Clive is considering his own mortality and has a brief moment of panic when he thinks about what would happen if he were to suddenly become ill and lose his mental faculties, like Molly.


Section two shows the working lives of the two main characters. Vernon has a very busy day at work and is constantly concerned about the power plays happening at The Judge, the tabloid newspaper of which Vernon is the editor. Vernon gets two phone calls: one from Clive and one from George, Molly's widow. Vernon visits Clive, who, after his panic the night before, asks Vernon to "help [him] to die" if he "started to go downhill and make terrible mistakes . . . errors of judgement." Vernon tells Clive he will think about it and then goes to see George. George shows Vernon some explicit photos that Molly took of Julian Garmony, which depict the conservative politician dressed in drag. George hints that Vernon should publish the photos in his newspaper. Vernon, feeling ill after visiting Molly's house and confronting his own mortality, returns to Clive's house and leaves him a note saying that he is willing to euthanize Clive if Clive will do the same for him.


The third part of the novel sees Clive leaving London to visit the countryside so that he can work on his symphony. On the train ride, Clive reflects on a disagreement he had with Vernon over the publication of the photos of Julian. Vernon has been fighting in court and with his newspaper’s board to be able to publish the photos. Vernon argues that the only reason he wants to embarrass the Foreign Secretary is because he disagrees with his conservative politics and wants to expose his hypocrisy. Clive is frustrated that Vernon has interrupted his creative process; he also believes that publishing the photos would constitute a betrayal of Molly. As Clive walks through the countryside, he becomes inspired and has a revelation about his symphony. At the same time, he witnesses a man attacking a woman in an isolated area. Clive prioritizes his creative work, and, instead of preventing the attack or offering assistance to the woman, he finds an area where he is safe and writes his music. Clive is elated because he has been lacking inspiration and was worried about finishing the symphony in time.


The fourth section concerns the publication of the photos of Julian Garmony and the resulting fallout for all of the characters. Rose Garmony, Julian’s wife, is a pediatric surgeon, and she begins her day thinking about the young child she will be performing open-heart surgery on. Vernon’s legal battle to publish the photos has fueled rumors; ahead of the photos’ publication, the Garmonys have been hounded by paparazzi, and Rose must fight her way through them as she heads to work. Meanwhile, Vernon has convinced the board of directors that it is in the newspaper’s best interests to publish the photos. He has formed an uneasy secret alliance with a much younger journalist; the politics of the newspaper hierarchy are weighing...

(The entire section contains 2420 words.)

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