I had such unreasonable expectations for Atonement that I'm almost disappointed it's not the best book I've read all year--though it is, safe to say, very good.
Some books are good because of their plot, and some because of their style; few, I think, boast both. The style of Atonement might be perfect for someone who likes a lot of James, Austen, or Auden, who are sort of reference points for the book though it takes place in the 1930's, but to me it was a little dry--but it's also one of the most intense books I think I've ever read.
In the early 1930's, 13-year old Briony Tallis, a girl with a very active imagination and a jones to become a serious writer, is witness to a series of events that she does not understand: a scene in which her sister emerges from a fountain in her underwear while the son of the family housekeeper stands by, a mistakenly sent letter, an illicit moment in a library. But Briony, the conceiver of plots, feels compelled to connect these events into a narrative which leads to a misunderstanding so great it threatens to ruin the lives of two people. I wish that I could say more, and were this a book I really didn't expect anyone to read, I would elucidate, but I think everyone here would probably enjoy Atonement, and I don't want to ruin it for anyone if they should choose to read it. But what happens in the first, longer section of the book possesses both the convincing detail of realism and the dread of inevitable doom, and it's very affecting.
The book has three other sections, one set in 1939 as the British Army retreats through France to the port of Dunkirk, one set in the same period that follows Briony as a nurse--trying to "atone" for the horrendous misunderstanding of four years previous--and a fourth set in 1999 that reveals that the book is actually of Briony's creation, as a way of atoning and coping with the events of her childhood. It is somehow both enormously sad and reassuring. The final three sections, however, seem somehow less consequential than the first, as lagging after the novel's true climax. Not to say that McEwan ought to have ended it after the first section, but in parts the final three seem brief and perfunctory, and too little attention is given to Briony's realization of her mistake and the ensuing, eponymous atonement.
A movie has been made of this book and will be released in December starring James McAvoy and Keira Knightley. It's directed by the same guy who directed Pride and Prejudice, so it should be very good.