History: Published in 1998.
Plot: The book begins with the funeral of Molly Lane. Clive, a composer, and Vernon, the editor of a large newspaper, are old friends, both of whom had had affairs with Molly. Also, Julian Garmony, an important political figure, right wing conservalist who is going to challenge the leadership in the upcoming election, is there. Her husband George has become more distinguished, having taken care of her prior to her death, even though she didn’t treat him well during the marriage. All four has a very high opinion of himself, and still competing against eachother even after her death.
Clive and Vernon muse upon Molly's death. It seems she had some kind of rapid-onset brain disease (not specified) that left her helpless and mad. Her death causes them to think about their own mortality, and this makes them enter into a euthanasia pact with each other. Should either of them get as sick and helpless as Molly the other one will take him to Amsterdam, where euthanasia is allowed, and end his life there.
Clive returns home to continue work on his symphony. He has been commissioned to write a piece for the forthcoming millennium and much of the work is complete, all save the crucial signature melody. He is planning a trip to the Lake District, because hiking will inspire him to finish the piece.
Vernon is the editor of a newspaper whose readership is falling. He is trying to change the content of the paper to be more sensationalist, to sell more papers. George, Molly's husband, gives him a golden opportunity: He gave to Vernon pictures of Julian Garmony dressed up like a woman, that Molly had photographed, so that Vernon could publish them in the paper and ruin his career. Clive doesn’t think he should publish the pictures, and the two argue furiously about the moral responsibility of the act. Clive is still upset about this when he leaves for his trip.
However, Clive faces a difficult moral decision himself. When going for a walk in the Lake District, he witnesses a man (who is a serial rapist however Clive thinks it is just a marital dispute) attacking a woman during his moment of inspiration, but instead of helping her, he crouches unseen beside a rock and writes his music. He leaves the Lake District that night, and returns home to finish his piece.
Vernon calls Clive to apoligize, and Clive tells him about seeing the attack, but refuses to go to the police. Vernon threatens to report him. With the newspaper publishing the story that Garmony is a cross dresser (but not the pictures, waiting until the end of the week so the papers will sell), Vernon is enjoying applause from his colleagues because the sales are so high. But Garmony’s family is forced to appear in the press. Apparently Mrs. Garmony has known that her husband is a cross dresser and defends him well to the public, and shows the pictures on an interview, blowing the paper’s big finale. Vernon is suddenly depicted as a despicable person, while Garmony is glorified, and he is forced to resign from the paper.
Clive is called to the police station to see a line up, and he recognizes the rapist in a line up. He then has to leave for Amsterdam, to be there when the orchestra rehearses his piece. Vernon calls and invites himself to go. Apparently the two are planning to poison each other, which they do with the help of euthanasia teams. The ending is when George and Julian are in Amsterdam to bring the two bodies home. The composition was a dud, with the crucial ending copied from “Ode to Joy.”
Review: The characters -- a free-spirited classical composer, an on-the-ropes editor, a rich publisher, and a conservative foreign secretary ripe for a fall -- are linked by the death of the lover they share and the subsequent discovery of potentially damaging photographs. Everyone's a sinner, but when comeuppance is served, it's too harsh and implausible, turning McEwan's otherwise finely crafted novel into a morality tale with a distorted moral. I think the ending is the most puzzling, because there is no real reason for the two to kill each other.
Opening Line: “The two former lovers of Molly Lane stood waiting outside the crematorium chapel with their backs to the February chill.”
Closing Line: “He smiled, and as he raised his hand to touch the doorbell, his mind was already settling luxuriously on the fascinating matter of the guest list.”
Quotes: “He was trying to call it back, but his concentration was being broken by another voice, the insistent, interior voice of self-justification: whatever it might have involved – violence, or the threat of violence, or his embarrassed apologies, or, ultimately, a statement to the police- if he had approached the couple, a pivotal moment in his career would have been destroyed.”