It's not that Amsterdam is a terrible book, but, as I read in some Amazon review, it's the sort of book that wins prizes. The characters are cold, distant and unlikable. The most likable character in the book is the elusive Molly Vernon, elusive because, at the outset, she's dead, and the book opens on her funeral. The rest of the cast are a trio of uniformly unlikable cads: Julian Garmony, a foreign secretary with ambitions of becoming prime minister, Vernon Halliday, a newspaper editor, and Clive Linley, the UK's preeminent composer at the time in which the novel is set.
These three men have a lot in common. All three are self absorbed, were lovers of Molly's at one point, and none of them (with the possible exception of Garmony) have much in the way of redeeming attributes. Of course, likable characters aren't always a necessity for a book to be involving and interesting: witness Lolita's Humbert Humbert, Catcher in the Rye's Holden Caufield, The Great Gatsby's Gatsby. The thing is, in those works, the characters' prickly demeanors worked as part of a larger character study. In Amsterdam, McEwan seems to want to tackle a lot of tough topics, lost love, fear of death, ambition, and jealousy, but his characters are so irredeemable as to strip all poignancy from their dilemmas. Take, for instance, Linley, who (SPOILERS) remorselessly allows a woman to be raped so that he doesn't lose the melody running through his head, or Halliday, who is utterly willing to destroy Garmony's life mostly out of spite and jealousy over a long dead relationship.
There are powerful themes at work here, and Amsterdam's denoument in, well, Amsterdam, is somewhat effective despite my inability to really care what happened to Halliday and Linley. Maybe that was the point, and Amsterdam is more than a fairly shallow tragedy, but aside from taking up an evening, it was mostly disappointing.