Whenever authors attempt "life in a day" novels like Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway or James Joyce's Ulysses, they have trouble wedging in everything they want to say without some contrivances. In Ian McEwan's Saturday, London surgeon Henry Perowne spends an alternately tense and blissful February 2003 weekend letting his thoughts drift between his past and his possible future. But when a gang of toughs violently pins him against the rear exit door of a strip club, the continued stream of consciousness feels writerly: It's McEwan's mind wandering, not Henry's. The characters seem a little concocted too. Henry is a doggedly rational doctor, his wife Rosalind is a compassionate lawyer, their daughter Daisy is a liberal poet, and their son Theo is a sweet-natured blues guitarist. Saturday contemplates the meaning of civilization at a moment in history—a month before the U.S. invasion of Iraq—that might've been the beginning of the end. McEwan's major players fit the discussion too neatly.

But these are minor quibbles about a mostly great book. McEwan's pacing goes slack at times, turning action scenes into daydreams, but Saturday is as taut as a rope during a breathlessly competitive squash game between Henry and his anesthesiologist, and mesmerizingly calm during the extended surgery sequence that draws the book to a close. McEwan's fiction often deals with the barely concealed emotional violence in ordinary interactions, and in Saturday, he gets at the nagging worries that can make even a good day into a total drag. Henry sweats out a visit with his senile mother and an impending visit from his drunken father-in-law, and he worries about whether he's losing touch with his grown children. And then there's the war, hammered into his head by the beating drums of protesters marching through London.

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Henry isn't entirely sure where he stands on the war, though he thinks surety is a fool's game. As the day wears on, though, and he inadvertently touches off a feud with a petty criminal, he contemplates what he stands to lose, and he gradually moves off the fence. The feud builds to a standoff that's too dramatic for a book like this, but it does prompt one Henry reverie—an impromptu bit of poetry criticism—that fits McEwan's study of how love, work, and art sustain us at times of great uncertainty. Even if the choices made in 2003 prove catastrophic in the years to come, Saturday has been designed as a comforting reminder of how we once lived.