Last Updated on September 5, 2023, 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."
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...
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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.