Your Life Purpose: McEwan’s Saturday

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I finally finished Ian McEwan’s Saturday. While he is known to be a great fiction writer and Saturday was selected as one of the best books of the year by the New York Times, Boston Globe, Slate, Chicago Tribune, Daily Telegraph and others, I found the first half of this novel incredibly dense.

His writing flowed and flowed, was articulate and informative, almost too much at times, and beautifully brought three generations of minds, hearts and souls together. Yet, I couldn’t find myself captivated like I have with other literary greats and had a hard time getting past twenty pages at a time, until the last hundred pages, which was so compelling and riveting on multiple levels that I didn’t put it down until the end.

Could it be that I didn’t particularly love the main character neurosurgeon Henry Perowne? Were there too many references to a part of London I knew too well and since it all seems too much of a distant memory, I quietly wanted to shut parts of it out?

Could it have been Perowne’s lack of masculine energy at times when you really wanted it to show up? Could it be his choice to operate on a man who sexually harassed his own daughter in front of the entire family before falling in love with her poetry reading? And the disbelief that his lawyer wife would allow him to enter the operating room under such circumstances?

Were they all without that much spine, except for perhaps poets daughter and grandfather who were passionately convicted about the written word? Or was it the believeable yet sad exchange between daughter and father about the Iraqi war and the questioning behind one family member being pro-war and another anti-war?

At times, it was often a choice of clumsy language instilled by fear and love at the same time, largely confused by Perowne himself, another example of his life uncertainty. The strict rules and routine of his profession lock him into a world he sees his children can now avoid; we see this internal turmoil when he questions something so profound as: “there must be more to life than saving lives?”

The character, who can never quite connect with his daughter’s love of great poets and writers alike, condemns them as magical realists. Perowne asks, “What were these authors of reputation doing — grown men and women of the twentieth century — granting supernatural powers to their characters?”

On classics Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, he saw them as ‘fairy stories.’ “What did he grasp after all? That adultery is understandable but wrong, that nineteeth-century women had a hard time of it, that Moscow and the Russian countryside and provincial France were once just so.”

He was unmoved by this, yet not by music despite his inability to play or move in a way that would let you know. My favorite passage in the entire book encompasses this understanding as well as my own connection to music. Beautifully written, worth the 289 page read alone to reach this section.

“He walks into the middle of the dark auditorium, towards the great engine of sound. He lets it engulf him. There are these rare moments when musicians together touch something sweeter than they’ve ever found before in rehearsals or performance, beyond the merely collaborative and technically proficient, when their expression becomes as easy and graceful as friendship or love. This is when they give us a glimpse of what we might be, of our best selves, and of an impossible world in which you give everything you have to others, but lose nothing of yourself.

Out in the real world, there exist detailed plans, visionary projects for peaceable realms, all conflicts resolved, happiness for everyone, for ever — mirages for the workers’ paradise, the ideal Islamic state. But only in music, and only on rare occasions, does the curtain actually lift on this dream of community, and it’s tantalisingly conjured, before fading away with the last notes.”

Stunningly written McEwan. Stunningly written.

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