Apologize and Atonement by Ian McEwan

* 1001 Books Book

Cover shows the old, dreary Tallis house.

Cover shows the old, dreary Tallis house.

McEwan, I., & Tanner, J. (2002). Atonement. Prince Fredrick, MD: Recorded Books.

Seeing the blurbs for the movie based on this book and hearing OneRepublic’s “Apologize” immediately influenced me to request Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Having heard much about the author, I was curious to how well McEwan could deliver. Soon, the audiobook was telling me the story in my car.

It’s a hot summer day in 1935 England. The upper class Tallis household abounds with activity, especially the young, thirteen year old Briony. Briony is an aspiring writer with a great imagination. She has just penned a play for her grown brother Leon’s homecoming. She desperately wants her cousins, the stunning Lola, and twin boys Jackson and Pierrot, to perform her play, The Trials of Arabella. Feeling her thunder stolen by Lola, Briony just happens to see something going on at the fountain between her older sister Cecilia and the charlady’s son, Robbie Turner. Only viewing and not hearing the exchange between the two Cambridge students, Briony holds sinister suspicions. Ditching her play and her cousins, Briony’s imagination runs away with her.

Meanwhile, the focus of the novel shifts to and from various points of view, including the seeming dilettante Cecilia, the intelligent and scholarly Robbie, and the wise, migraine plagued matriarch, Emily Tallis. These views elucidate for the reader what has actually happened. The evening arrives, bringing on the entrance of playboy Leon and social equal Paul Marshall. When there is a nasty turn of events that night, Briony jumps to conclusions, changing the lives of all present at the Tallis household that summer evening in 1935. From this point onward, Briony longs for atonement.

Like many a psyche, Atonement is a very complex. Divided into four parts, the novel delves into the thoughts and motives behind numerous characters. Also, the book deals with numerous issues; social implications, morality, guilt, and responsibility. The dimension brought to Briony Tallis simply amazed me. In Atonement, the reader meets Briony as a child, a young adult, and a septuagenarian. In each phase, Briony is different and yet the same. Latter parts of the book illustrate World War II scenes of Dunkirk and a hospital in London with sharp clarity.

Another part of Atonement I admired was how Briony’s actions in 1935 resonate throughout the rest of the book. Responsibility as a human and as a writer becomes piercingly acute. Whether or not she gains much desired atonement is open for interpretation.

Nonetheless, I was not crazy about the choppy transitions from Part I to Parts II and III. Part I gave readers such as myself insight on the thoughts of many. After Part I, several of the characters react almost implausibly or evaporate by Part II. While I appreciated the introduction to Cecilia’s great intellect, Robbie’s tenderness, and even Briony’s shame, I missed other characters such as Emily Tallis and the cousins in other parts of the book.

Atonement is a book I will not soon forget. The plot twists, the conception of characters, the peppering of other works of literature throughout Atonement, etc, etc make for a moving read. This book has definitely raised the bar for many others.

Despite the ending, I give the book 4 out of 5 Pearls.

Places: Cambridge University, Dunkirk, London, UK

Music Brought to Mind: “Apologize” by OneRepublic

Wrapped up in Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros

Cisneros, S. (2002). Caramelo. New York: Harper Audio. 9780060515911

 Cisneros, S. (2002). In Caramelo, or, Puro cuento: A novel. New York: Knopf. 9781400041503

Caramelo was a novel of epic proportions (eighty plus chapters) written by well-known author Sandra Cisneros (The House on Mango Street). The book was published in 2002 by Harper Collins. The audio book is read by author Sandra Cisneros. I both listened to and read Caramelo.

This book seemed semi-autobiographical to me. Like the narrator, Lala Reyes, Cisneros was born into a large family and she was born in Chicago in the 1950s. Also, both are the only daughters born into the family. Each is of Mexican descent and, of course, each woman can really spin a thread. Nonetheless, the novel is prefaced with, perhaps, a caveat saying that not one bit is true. In fact, Cisneros disclaims, “If, in the course of my inventing, I have inadvertently stumbled on the truth, perdónenme.” Caramelo came in a Spanish edition as well. The English version which I experienced is liberally sprinkled with authentic Spanish phrases.

A few things about Caramelo caught my attention before I decided to read the book. The mention of the rebozo of San Luis Potosi, Mexico reminded me of mission trips I went on to SLP and my own search for a rebozo. Also, I read the back and saw that part of the book takes place in San Antonio, each Texan’s second home town. Then, there was the curiosity about Cisneros’s writing style. So, I gave Caramelo a chance.

With Caramelo, the reader is given a chance to learn or brush up on Mexican history, immerse him/herself in the Mexican-American experience as well as learn the stories and, sometimes, the Reyes family history. The young narrator, Celaya “Lala” Reyes provides her audience a window into her heritage, weaving in strands to create a rich, poignant caramelo rebozo of a tale.

Lala’s paternal grandmother, Soledad Reyes, comes from a family of the legendary, Mexican shawl of San Luis Potosi. The book begins with an annual summer pilgrimage from Lala’s native Chicago to visit the grandparents, the Awful Grandmother and the Little Grandfather, in Mexico City.

Caramelo begins with one such summer when Lala was a little girl. Here, the Awful Grandmother rules the roost. The Awful Grandmother dotes on her favorite child, Lala’s father, Inocencio, to the irritation of Lala’s mother, Zoila, and to the exclusion of the rest of the Awful Grandmother’s children. When Zoila reaches her breaking point with the Awful Grandmother, the story takes the reader on a journey to the time the Awful Grandmother was a sad, lonely little girl called Soledad Reyes.

The reader finds the little Soledad being sent with her late mother’s caramelo rebozo, a shawl of boasting the colors of toffee, licorice, and vanilla, (Cisneros 94) to Mexico City from San Luis Potosi and into a fateful introduction to Narciso Reyes (the Little Grandfather). In the midst of the Mexican Revolution (1911 – 1920), Narciso and Soledad come together, marry, and start of family. Inocencio, the first child and the favorite of Soledad, was born. As a young man, Inocencio moves to United States and works his way to Chicago, and meets Mexican-American Zoila.

The Awful Grandmother moves in with the Chicago Reyeses after the death of the Little Grandfather. At first, they all live in Chicago. Then, they all move to San Antonio where the Awful Grandmother dies. Teenage granddaughter Lala is left with numerous loose ends and looks into the family histories and stories to better understand her late grandmother.

Some reviewers have compared Caramelo to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I believe that while the Reyes family may not be monetarily wealthy, they are rich with stories and identity. At times this book was reminiscent of Forrest Gump in the numerous appearances of famous and/or infamous, true people. However, I did like the historical context these cameos lent the work.

For the most part, I enjoyed listening to this book. Cisneros was able to better convey her points with her vocal characterizations – from the Awful Grandmother’s whine to Inocencio’s formality to Zoila’s crackling sarcasm. Additionally, Cisneros can pronounce these words. She knows her own stuff and that’s great. Still, it was good to have the book to see exactly how some of these words looked so I could say, “Oh, that’s how you say that word.” If anyone has as little understanding of Spanish as I, Caramelo may be a struggle.

I appreciated that many of the characters had an oft-repeated sentiment throughout the work. Narciso (the Little Grandfather) was a man feo, fuerte, y formal although he was not ugly (Cisneros, 103) while Soledad (the Awful Grandmother) reminds herself “Just enough, but not too much (92).

I am happy I stuck it out, though. I was able to see Lala make and wear her very own rebozo with the help of various relatives, especially her grandmother. Thus, I recommend this to the patient history buff out there.

Caramelo receives three out of five pearls from me.