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


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

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 heavily on Vernon, but he feels like he is finally in control and will be hailed as a revolutionary journalist whose cover page will be “taught in journalism school." Vernon calls Clive to make up after their disagreement and agrees to meet him later to catch up. Clive mentions the attack that he witnessed. After an editorial meeting where he is lauded for his insight ahead of the Garmony photographs’ publication, Vernon realizes that the attack that Clive witnessed was perpetrated by a serial rapist whom one of his journalists has been covering. Vernon calls Clive and implores him to go to the police. Clive refuses, telling Vernon that in publishing the photos of Julian Garmony, he is “crapping on Molly’s grave." Vernon then sees that Rose Garmony is giving a press conference, during which she reveals the photographs of her husband, which she pretends to have had knowledge of, and likens Vernon to a flea. Vernon is forced to resign. In retaliation for Clive's lack of support, Vernon informs the police about Clive's failure to report the assault he witnessed. Though Clive is not arrested, the police involvement prevents him from finishing his symphony the way he had planned.


The fifth and final section follows the trip that Clive and Vernon take to Amsterdam after the scandal. Clive has arrived to see his hastily finished symphony rehearsed, and Vernon has arrived ostensibly to support his friend. Throughout the book, allusions are made to doctors in the Netherlands who are “pushing euthanasia laws to the limits . . . get[ting] paid for bumping off people’s elderly relatives." Vernon and Clive have each arranged, unbeknownst to each other, to have the other murdered via euthanasia by declaring the other mentally unwell. After both men have died, Julian Garmony and George Lane arrive in Amsterdam to claim their bodies and accompany them back to London. George and Julian discuss Clive’s symphony, widely regarded as a “shameless copy of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy." George tells Julian he has come out of the photo scandal “bloody well” and that “most men would have hanged themselves." As George departs, he reflects happily on the fact that Julian, Vernon, and Clive are all “out of the way" and considers romantically pursuing Vernon's widow, Mandy.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1396

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, however, he sees that the woman is struggling to fight off a rapist. After a moment of hesitation, Clive abandons the woman to her struggle and finds a flat rock to use as a desk to write out this elusive theme.

Clive makes the mistake of sharing this experience with his friend, Vernon, who later informs him that the man he saw attacking a woman in the Lake District was the Lakeland rapist, who has been preying on women hikers. This particular woman had escaped her attacker. However, because Clive refused to intervene or even to report the incident to the police, the rapist attacked another woman two days later. Fortunately, the rapist was soon arrested. Vernon threatens to report Clive, a witness to the earlier attempted rape, to the police if Clive refuses to do his moral duty. Vernon himself is hardly an embodiment of morality, being embroiled in an effort to publicly embarrass Julian. Before Vernon even got the racy photographs, he had been served with a court injunction to not publish them. However, Vernon succeeds in getting the injunction lifted. His staff shares Clive’s initial response to the photos: that it would be unethical to reveal what Molly and Julian intended to remain private.

In a brilliant preemptive strike, Rose Garmony, Julian’s wife, calls a press conference and lies to the media to save her husband’s reputation. She asserts that he had revealed his cross-dressing to her early in their relationship, and that she had decided to overlook it as a harmless eccentricity. Holding the racy photographs for the media cameras to record, she focuses on Vernon’s effort to blackmail her husband, damning the editor for having the “moral stature of a flea.” Public sympathy is for Julian, and Vernon’s reputation is ruined, along with his career. Clive sends Vernon a postcard criticizing his friend’s behavior, and the “war” is on. Vernon reports his friend to the authorities, and Clive’s creative efforts are further disrupted when the police pursue him as a material witness to the rapist’s crime.

Clive and Vernon each come to believe that the other is showing all the symptoms of a terminal disease, and they make plans to visit Amsterdam. The city has liberal attitudes toward prostitution, recreational drug use, and even euthanasia, which will make it easy to find a doctor to assist in their suicides. The plan is for both Vernon and Clive to hire a doctor to help the two kill themselves and, thereby, fulfill their earlier suicide pact.

George and Julian have a bizarre conversation while they await their flight to Amsterdam to retrieve the bodies of Clive and Vernon and have them returned to England. George tells Julian he admires him for surviving the affair of the photographs, adding that a lesser man would have committed suicide. Presumably, this is exactly what Clive had intended in passing the envelope of photos to Vernon. Now that Vernon is dead, along with Clive—apparently an unexpected bonus for George—the time may finally be right to conduct a memorial service for his dead wife.

Further Reading

Chetrinescu, Dana. “Rethinking Spatiality: The Degraded Body in Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam.” British and American Studies 7, no. 2 (2001): 157-165. A focus on illness and the human body in McEwan’s Amsterdam.

Childs, Peter, ed. The Fiction of Ian McEwan: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. An excellent resource for students of McEwan, providing excerpts from books, articles, and reviews examining his work.

Head, Dominic. Ian McEwan. New York: Manchester University Press, 2007. A study of McEwan’s aesthetics and themes, including those in Amsterdam.

Ingersoll, Earl G. “City of Endings: Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam.” In Waiting for the End: Gender and Ending in the Contemporary Novel. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2007. This chapter focuses on “endings”—death, sexual climax, the ends of musical compositions and novels—in McEwan’s Amsterdam. Part of a study examining how gender is associated with the theme of endings in the contemporary novel.

Malcolm, David. Understanding Ian McEwan. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002. This critical study covers McEwan’s work up to Amsterdam. Each chapter is organized around what Malcolm sees as the five key issues in McEwan’s work: textual self-consciousness, feminism, rationalism and science, moral perspective, and the “fragmentariness” of his novels.

Roger, Angela. “Ian McEwan’s Portrayal of Women.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 32, no. 1 (1996): 11-26. This article deals with the key issue of gender in McEwan’s fiction. Roger argues that women in McEwan’s fiction are always constructed from a male point of view.

Walkowitz, Rebecca L. “Ian McEwan.” In A Companion to the British and Irish Novel, 1945-2000, edited by Brian W. Shaffer. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005. A biographical essay on McEwan in a literary companion examining British and Irish novelists writing from the end of World War II through the end of the twentieth century.