Set in 1935 England, this “New York Times” bestseller is enthralling in its depiction of childhood, love and war, England and class, making it a profound-- and profoundly moving--exploration of shame and forgiveness, of atonement and the difficulty of absolution.
On an English country estate in the jittery, gilded era between the two great wars, two young people stand in the summer’s heat, arguing by an ancient fountain. Cecilia is the daughter of the household, and Robbie is the cleaning woman’s son, a brilliant boy whose Cambridge education has been benevolently financed by Cecilia’s father. During their quarrel, the two manage to break a valuable porcelain vase, and in a fury largely engendered by her unacknowledged feelings for the young man, Cecilia strips off her clothes, leaps into the fountain and retrieves the fragments. It is a dazzling moment, full of beauty and ruin, lust and innocence, so highly charged that it’s no wonder Cecilia’s little sister, Briony, observing unseen from a window, feels a sense of menace. She concludes that Robbie has compelled her sister to do something shameful. This assumption, when combined with later events, brings disaster not simply to the two young people who are discovering themselves to be lovers, but to everyone else in the well-intentioned, prosperous family.