Molly Lane, restaurant critic and photographer, has died of a progressive neurological disease. She is survived by George, her husband, as well as by several past lovers, including Clive Linley, a famous composer, his old friend Vernon Halliday, editor of a London newspaper, and Julian Garmony, the British foreign secretary, rumored to be headed for Downing Street. After Molly's funeral, both Clive and Vernon experience odd neurological symptoms and make a mutual pact to help each other commit suicide in order to end suffering. The symptoms appear in both cases to have been psychosomatic, but the pact remains.

George has found career-destroying photographs of Julian Garmony (in drag) among Molly's things, and he gives them to Vernon for the newspaper. Vernon and Clive quarrel over the ethics of a decision each has made: Vernon's decision to publish the pictures, and over Clive's decision not to intervene when, while working on a crucial melody for his symphony during a walk in the country, he sees a woman being attacked by a man who turns out to be a serial rapist. When Vernon is fired and Clive's symphony is a failure, each blames the other and the suicide pact becomes a means of mutual revenge.

A subtext has been a running storyline in Vernon's paper about rumored abuse of the Netherlands's liberal euthanasia laws; the novel ends in Amsterdam, each man involuntarily euthanized by a physician paid by his friend. (Meantime, Garmony's career is in ruins. George has successfully destroyed all three of his wife's lovers.)


The bleakness of McEwan's view of human nature in this work is leavened by extraordinarily good writing. While McEwan on one level uses Dutch assisted-suicide/euthanasia policy simply as a plot device in a somewhat unlikely and overly symmetrical revenge scheme, there is more here, too: "Amsterdam" comes to signify not just a place but a condition, one all too familiar in bioethics: when the power to act is not matched by the ethics that should control that power.

Clive and Vernon are both appalled by what they believe was Molly's intolerable suffering. George was her only caregiver right up until she died, and he is the one who gets the novel's last word. At the center, however, is Molly herself, and the only thing we know about her is her own particular power, over men, possibly immorally used.

We never find out anything at all about her illness experience: all four men project their own fears and desires onto her. This vacuum at the center of the novel, where the patient was, makes it a particularly good starting point for speculation and then exploration about the ethics of assisted suicide and euthanasia, and about morality and power in general.


This novel won the Booker Prize for 1998.


Tan A. Talese/Doubleday

Place Published

New York



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