Friday, April 9, 2010

Review: Solar by Ian McEwan

Michael Beard is a Nobel prize winning physicist who has been coasting ever since his "Beard Conflation" enlarged on Einstein's theory. He hasn't kept up with current research or even done any himself since that breakthrough, simply lending his name to boards and scientific institutions and slouching through his life. When the novel opens, his fifth marriage is failing and he is so pre-occupied with the affair his wife is having (after he's had countless of his own) that he ignores the young men, dubbed "the ponytails", working under him, swatting at one in particular, who pesters him about the sustainability of solar power as being the future over the wind power Beard himself had off-handedly once mentioned and is now the focus of a large governmental institution as a result. The surprising way in which Beard comes around to accepting the importance of solar power through the years after the open of the novel, whose shoulders he stands on, whom he tramples, and how poorly he behaves in general is the central focus of this novel. But there are many divagations leading up to the not so terribly surprising denouement.

McEwan is, without a doubt, a master of the English language. And this is a technically impressive novel. But it is, ultimately, dull as dishwater. Beard, as a character is pompous, marginally unpleasant, and slightly ludicrous. Above and beyond being unlikable, which makes it hard for the reader to sympathize with him, he is also not entirely believable. It would be one thing to root for his downfall but it is quite another to think with a resigned sigh, "Just get on with it then, will you?" And I know that McEwan is capable of writing characters that stir much stronger emotions but this one just misses the mark. All of the secondary characters are flat and many of them are simply cardboard stereotypes and so the novel rises and falls with the lackluster Michael Beard.

The massive time frame jumps in the story are problematic too. Obviously filling in the gaps would have made for a bloated novel of immense proportion but this pared down version takes away the chance to show Beard as a proactive character. The form asks the reader to believe that an indolent, dismissive character who quails in the face of his wife's lover and whose solution to a major turn up is to furtively frame someone else, has actually rousted up the gumption to set in motion a major scientific undertaking, complete with private equity funding and the like. Credulity only stretches so far. Others have thoroughly thrilled to this latest of McEwan's offerings but I can't help thinking that even the mighty stumble sometimes and this is an instance for him.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy of the book.


  1. I loved the way you described this as "dull as dishwater" I had to add your quote to my own review! This is receiving very mixed reviews, but I was on the fence - some bits really annoyed me, but some were very good. I just hope it doesn't win the Booker prize this year.

  2. I've been curious about this book for some time. Thanks for reviewing it! I'm not sure if I will read it, but I will keep an eye out for it.

  3. I love it when you don't mince words!


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