Saturday by Ian McEwan is a day in the life of Henry Perowne. Dr. Perowne’s day is going to be tumultuous. We know this from the opening scene in which Dr. Perowne looks out his kitchen window to see a large plane in flames crash landing at the nearby airport. Were terrorists involved? No one on the news seems to know. That same day the city of London is experiencing the largest anti-war demonstration in its history, but that is not Dr. Perowne’s concern. He is ambivalent about the impending Iraq war, against Saddam Hussein but not certain the war will go according to plan.
Instead of attending the demonstration, he goes about his usual Saturday business, playing racquetball, running errands, preparing for the evening’s planned dinner party that he hopes will reunite his daughter with her grandfather after several years of avoiding each other. Does anyone recognize Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway yet? In the reviews of Saturday that I’ve read the issue of Iraq and life in a post 9-11 world loom large, but no one has mentioned how closely the book follows the plot arc of Mrs. Dalloway.
There are more than a few parallels. In each book, the main character is preparing for a dinner party. Each book details how the main character must go to various points around London to get things ready while describing that character’s inner monologue and past relationships. Each main character is a non-artistic person who knows poets and musicians. Each book spends pages describing ordinary events. (Saturday goes on and on about the squash game, or racket ball I’m not sure what the difference is, until the book almost becomes a sports story.) In each book the main character meets another who is emotionally disturbed to the point of violence, Mrs. Dalloway contains suicidal violence while Saturday contains homicidal violence. Mrs. Dalloway in heavily influenced by World War I while Saturday is influenced by the War on Terror. I expected Mr. McEwan to acknowledge his dept to Virginia Woolf, but if he did it was too subtle for me. The novel’s last line does echo that of James Joyce’s The Dead which is also about a family dinner party. Joyce’s novel Ulysses is another well-respected day in the life book. (This type of book might make a good topic for a reading challenge.)
Saturday is an excellent piece of writing, full of vividly drawn, complex characters and a compelling attention to detail. Parts of it are exquisite, but other parts tend to go on longer than they need to. The book is about living in a violent world, and I understand why the author chose to make that violence physically enter the home of Dr. Perowne, but I still could have done without it. Once the final scene began, and it became clear to me where it was going, I felt a bit cheated. The dinner party was interesting enough, violent enough actually, though the violence was emotional, that bringing actual violence to the table cheapened the novel. (I am alone in this opinion as far as I know, but I’ve been alone before.)
In the years since 2008 when I first posted this review at my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B., my opnion of Saturday has lessened rather than grown. I have not reread the book, so this may not be entirely fair, but I can only echo the misgivings I wrote about in the above review. The more I thought about it, the less I liked Saturday. I’m probably alone in that feeling, too, but I can live with that.