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Review: Saturday

I’ve always believed in the symbolism of small moments, that we can find meaning in our lives through the conflicts and triumphs that we have every day. Saturday by Ian McEwan, more than just about any other book I’ve read, captures this idea beautifully using a single day in the life of Dr. Henry Perowne.

Saturday, as the title implies, is a story that takes place entirely on a single day — February 15, 2003 .  The book begins with Perowne, a noted British neurosurgeon, inexplicably waking up some hours before dawn.  The story follows Perowne through the routine of a Saturday — a squash game with a friend, a visit to his mother, a trip to the grocery store and preparation for a dinner with his family.  The day is interrupted, however, when a small traffic accident forces Perowne into a confrontation with a small-time thug that has ramifications far beyond the few dents and scratches on his car.

The thing I loved about this book is that McEwan is deft at drawing out the conflicts and confusions that make up the drama of a single day.  For example, after his traffic accident, Perowne heads to his weekly squash game.  In the wake of his frustration about the accident, Preowne turns the friendly game turns into an epic battle against his opponent and himself:

The constant change of direction tries him as much as his gathering self-hatred.  Why has he volunteered for, even anticipated with pleasure, this humiliation, this torture?  It’s at moments like these in a game that the essentials of his character are exposed: narrow, ineffectual, stupid–and morally so.  The game becomes an extended metaphor of character defect.  Every error he makes is so profoundly, so irritatingly typical of himself, instantly familiar, like a signature, like a tissue scar or some deformation in a private place.

It’s sections like this (the quote might not do it justice) that made me enjoy Saturday.  The entire novels is an intense and microscopic look at a single day, complete with every moment of random thought and analysis an individual might have in a day.  Unfortunately, it’s this quality that also makes the book really difficult to get into.  The entire book, even the conflict and climax, seem to move slowly.  As I read, I constantly felt like I just wasn’t getting anywhere with the story.  I kept reading because McEwan’s prose is so elegant and I love the way he captures moments, but at the same time I kept wanting the story to move along a little bit.

I’m having a hard time deciding whether I recommend this book or not.  I enjoyed it, but I think you have to be a particularly patient and willing reader in order to get past the slow parts to start appreciating the book.  If you don’t like to wait, or don’t like the prospect of a book that doesn’t seem to have a driving force until well into the story, you won’t make it past the first 50 pages of Saturday.   But if you’re a reader with patience, this book is well worth the time and effort it takes to read.

Other Reviews: Maw Books Blog;

Reviewed this book?  Leave a comment and I’ll link to your review at the bottom of this post!

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  • Amanda February 18, 2009, 11:19 am

    I have looked at this a couple of times, but have yet to pick it up. I think that I will though after reading your review as it sounds like an intriguing book.

    Thanks for the review!

  • bermudaonion February 18, 2009, 11:58 am

    I’ve only read on of Ian McEwan’s books and I didn’t like the ending, so I’ve kind of avoided his others.

  • Steph February 18, 2009, 2:15 pm

    Stylistically, would you compare this to Atonement (provided you’ve read that one!)? I found that one had a really painfully slow start, but then picked up after about page 65 or so. And I thought the ending was fabulous of Atonement,so if I were convinced this had a similarly awesome ending, I would probably give this one a try.

  • Louise February 18, 2009, 2:41 pm

    I’ve only read one of his books and that was Atonement, which I absolutely hated from start to finish 😉 I have steered very clear of every other book by him since then. That is probably not fair at all, as he is supposedly a very important author, but I hated that book so much, that he and his works has become somewhat of a pet peeve with me…. 🙂

  • Michelle February 18, 2009, 3:52 pm

    I have a kind of love/hate relationship with Ian McEwan. I’ve tried several times to read Saturday, but I think the timing has been all wrong. I think I’ll take your advice and try it again someday when I have more time and patience to wait this book out.

  • thebookzombie February 18, 2009, 4:07 pm

    This is on my list of books to read. I’m completely fascinated by the idea of the story being about one single day. There are so many things that happen in a normal day that we can sometimes not see the impact they’ve had until much later. Thanks for the great review.

  • Mike February 18, 2009, 4:27 pm

    I’d also love to read what Kim thinks about the stylistic similarity of Saturday to Atonement. Their approaches to some of the same issues (war, art, personal suffering) struck me as meaningfully different.

    The last paragraph of Saturday has some of the sweep and power of the conclusion of Atonement, though it is difficult to gauge whether the payoff is worth some of the hackneyed plot decisions McEwan makes.

    Slate’s Book Club did one of their better podcasts on Saturday.

  • Sandra February 18, 2009, 7:21 pm

    I enjoyed your thoughts on this story. I’ve read several of McEwan’s books and liked them all. Chesil Beach was not my cup of tea, but my favourite was Saturday. I liked it more than Atonement. I am partial to physician’s as protagonists but I was intrigued to watch how this character would act under the various and trying circumstances that day threw at him. He is human but he did live up to my hopes for him. I did not find the story slow myself, it seemed appropriate to what was happening. Thank you for reviewing it.

  • Teresa February 18, 2009, 9:39 pm

    Interesting. This is probably my least favorite McEwan. I actually loved the opening pages and the random thoughts that you mention, Kim, but then the plot just went way over the top. I did, however, like Atonement quite a bit, and I adored On Chesil Beach. That book left me absolutely devastated–I cried for a good long time after reading it.

  • Kim February 18, 2009, 10:53 pm

    Steph: As I was writing the review, I was trying to remember what it was like to read Atonement and if they were similar, but I couldn’t remember. I read Atonement before I was writing reviews so I can’t remember what I thought of it! Generally, I know that I liked Atonement as a novel, so I think they must be pretty similar.

    Louise: Nothing wrong with avoiding an author if you didn’t like one book. If you want to try McEwan, don’t start with this book — I don’t think the first pages do it justice.

    Michelle: It took me a long, long time to read this book, so I don’t know if maybe it was timing or the book itself. Either way, I maintain it’s a book that needs some patience.

    thebookzombie: That was my favorite part too. I think we take for granted how important a single day can be, and McEwan does a great job of drawing out the way minor events can become major internal conflicts (something I think everyone experiences).

    Mike: Thanks for the podcast, I am going to listen to it later tonight. I’m slowly being persuaded to read Atonement again since I can’t remember much about it! You’re right about the last paragraph of Saturday, it’s grand.

    Sandra: Yes, Perwone lived up to my expectations too — I was really happy about that.

    Teresa: Yeah, I didn’t mention much plot stuff in this review, I think because the relative slowness of the novel was the biggest impression I was left with. But I agree, the conflict at the end of the novel seemed weird too me (but at least something was happening 😉 )

  • Care February 19, 2009, 6:19 am

    I enjoyed this thoughtful review. I like McEwan but can understand that some people absolutely do not. I will read this someday.

    And I read Atonement twice and liked it much better the second time.

  • Kim February 23, 2009, 1:05 pm

    Care: I like McEwan too, but also can see why he isn’t for some people. I’m going to read Atonement again, sometime, I’m just not sure when 🙂