Solar by Ian McEwan

Solar by Ian McEwanA couple of weeks ago, I went along with Simon (Savidge Reads) to hear Ian McEwan talk and got myself a copy (signed!) of his latest novel Solar.

Solar is the story of Michael Beard, a physicist and a philanderer. We enter his life in the year 2000 at the end of his fifth marriage which is failing because of his repeated affairs which have driven his wife Patrice into the arms of a builder. A former Nobel Prize-winner now gone to seed, Beard’s life is changed by an unexpected accident which solves one problem in his love-life and opens the door for him professionally. With his career invigorated, Beard is set to save the world from Global Warming if only he can look past his expanding belly and keep his complicated personal life from imploding.

The excellent character development in Solar, and the unsparing detail within the writing is exactly as I expect from Ian McEwan. The character of Michael Beard is at times loathsome, at others pitiable and the author’s treatment of him is brutal but also witty. He isn’t a protagonist that you want to succeed. He’s an anti-hero, who reminded me vaguely of Malcom Bradbury’s Howard Kirk in The History Man in his self-absorbed and egocentric outlook. I couldn’t empathise with him, but the thoroughness with which he is depicted has left a sort of stain on my mind – a very memorable creation!

The story itself does have a series of events, but it is definitely more of a chronicle of Beard’s personal journey. We follow him from his darkest days, through to a kind of new vigour and back again. Just as the world seems to be on a runaway path to destruction, Beard’s physical appearance and health is also decaying, his life held together by a lie as fragile as the Earths ecosystem is purported to be.

I enjoyed McEwan’s metaphors and the comments within the book that couldn’t help but be topical. At the beginning of the novel, Beard considers how each generation needs its own Armageddon. With the threat of the Cold War over, Climate Change may be our modern incarnation. Later, he gives a speech about motivating the masses to make changes to help the environment, commenting that it is not virtue that will move them, but self-interest and novelty; “Virtue is too passive, too narrow”.

Because of the subject that it deals with, Solar is fairly heavy in academic, science-related language. After all, Beard is a physicist, so we as a reader must share his science. At times this can make it a bit of a difficult read, even turgid in parts. I wouldn’t say that it is one of McEwan’s more ‘enjoyable’ books because the subject matter is so dark. However he does inject witty moments into the books to lighten it, such as when Beard experiences a particularly ‘sticky’ moment on a trip to the arctic (literally!). A few more doses of humour like these could have made the story flow a bit more.

Solar is a thought-provoking read – challenging in parts and funny in others. Overall it I found it a very interesting portrait of a man brilliant enough to change the world, but too corrupt to be its saviour.

My rating:

7 out of 10

Have you read or plan to read Solar?

20 responses to “Solar by Ian McEwan

  1. I gave Solar the same rating as you – it had some great bits, but also some terrible bits. It sounds as though most people would have prefered the science to have been taken out of this one.

    • I gave it a 7 because I thought it was very good but didn’t blow me away like others. For comparison, I would give On Chesil Beach and Enduring Love 8 out of 10 and Atonement a big fat 10. I didn’t mind the science so much but it did slow the pace down however I also accept that it was a fundamental part of his character which also made for tough reading! I found some bits at the start so funny, that I wished there had been some more later on!

  2. “a man brilliant enough to change the world, but too corrupt to be its saviour”

    I haven’t yet read the book, but that sounds like an excellent summation. Nice review :)

    By the way, I’m envious that you and Simon got to see McEwan talk!

    • Thanks Mark, appreciate you saying that. It was really interesting to see the author in person, we felt very lucky! :)

  3. Pingback: Solar, by Ian McEwan « Iris on Books

  4. I’ve read Solar as my first book by Ian McEwan, which might be why I liked it so much: I had never read anything by him before and I really enjoy his writing style. The passages with scientific language did bother me however, it slowed the story down for me.

    It must be great getting to see and hear McEwan talk.

    • Yes it was really interesting! Oh, I liked this alot, but I love the other books I’ve read by him even more so hopefully you’ve got a treat in store for you!

  5. Interesting review! I find Ian McEwan hit and miss and I’m never in a rush to read his new books, but I know I’d like to read this one day. He’s a bit smug for my liking I think – maybe if I liked him more as a person I’d be more excited by his books!

    • That’s interesting and I think you’re right, I do think we can be quite influenced about what we think of an author.

  6. I wasn’t going to read this book but your review’s changed my mind! I remember liking Atonement (I liked the film too) but don’t think I’ve read anything else, although I watched a little bit of The Cement Garden. I like fiction with a bit of science in it, so will give this a try once I’ve worked away at my TBR pile a little.

  7. I would like to read it but it sounds a little like Saturday, which I found a little dry. I would still like to take on the challenge, though.

  8. Great review Polster! It was very interesting getting to meet him (having our little mad crazy slightly stalkerish moment – thank goodness no one else saw it hahaha) and to hear him talk. I liked this book a lot. I think having let the dust settle on it I dont think its a book that will stay with me forever thats one of the things about blogging almost instantly can cause though hee hee.

    • lol it was a bit stalkerish. I know what you mean. I thought it was good but it didn’t change my life (compared to others of his that I’ve LOVED).

  9. You might be interested in reading the review of Solar in today’s New York Times (Sunday, April 18th) by Walter Kirn. Even if one disagrees, the review is an eloquent harpooning of the kind of bad novel which Kirn thinks Ewan has written, and is therefore relevant to others of the same type (whether Solar is that type or not).

  10. I am definitely going to read this one. (I would give On Chesil Beach a 10. Not only my favorite McEwan book, but one of my favorites of all time.)

    • Hi Thomas, On Chesil Beach is brilliant isn’t it, I agree with you totally on that. I didn’t love Solar as much but McEwan’s writing is always a winner for me in different degrees!

  11. Pingback: Novel Insights’ April Review « Novel Insights

  12. Pingback: And here are the books I read while I was away… | Novel Insights

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