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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Solar eclipses all previous work
Politics,physics and environmentalism are unlikely comedy bed partners but it is testimony to McEwan's ability that he has woven all three into an hilarious and dark satire which conveys an equally serious message about the mentality of humankind. Michael Beard is a convincingly real figure uncomfortably familiar to the reader at times,the personification of...
Published on 14 July 2011 by Mr. Timothy W. Dumble

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49 of 54 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Exploring climate change through the lens of human nature
Solar tells the story of Michael Beard, an overweight and aging physicist who won the Nobel prize twenty years ago and hasn't had an interesting idea since. He plays on his fame and drifts between speaking engagements and sinecures, his private life is a disastrous series of failed marriages.

That all changes when a freak accident leaves him in possession of a...
Published on 17 Jan. 2011 by Jeremy Williams


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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars At the centre of his own universe, 14 Aug. 2010
This review is from: Solar (Hardcover)
Usually - if such a word can be applied to rare events - Nobel Laureates are recognised towards the end of a lifetime's achievement. The true significance of work has to be established before it can be recognised. Michael Beard, modifier of Einstein's photovoltaics, producer of the Beard-Einstein Conflation, or should that have been the Einstein-Beard Conflation, seemed to receive his ultimate recognition a tad early in life. Surely it would have been the proposed grand application of his work that swayed the judges rather than the mere realisation of theory. So if there is to be a criticism of Ian McEwan's novel, Solar, it is precisely this. But then Michael Beard always was a precocious winner, after coming first in a beautiful baby award. So there.

This is my only criticism of Solar. I thought that Ian McEwan would never write anything to challenge the intensity, complexity, ease of expression and irony of Saturday. But Solar achieves all of this and much more.

In his professional life, Michael Beard is a scientist, a physicist with an interest in light. Energy becomes his focus and, via his photovoltaic conflation, he begins to address energy production for a warming planet. Or does he? Does he receive rather than initiate? And does he acknowledge?

Both meticulous and precise in his professional guise, Michael Beard is a sybaritic, lecherous slob in the private domain. We meet him first upon his fifth wife, Patrice. With her he has at last found happiness - at least when they are together. Periods apart find him pursuing anything available before or after a half a bottle of Scotch. Unknown to him, Patrice is doing precisely the same, but remaining sober. From Michael Beard's conventionally misogynist standpoint, this seems unfair and he calls foul.

Aldous is just the sort of bloke that - all things being equal (which of course they are not!) - Michael Beard would both ignore and avoid. He's big, hefty, wears sandals and a pony tail. His apparently laid back approach to life is surely anathema to Michael Beard's internally perceived order. After all, didn't a youthful Beard sport a jacket and tie with pens in the top pocket right through the 1960s? How times change, he might reflect, on pushing aside a pile of unwashed dishes mixed with general detritus in his London flat. But besides threatening, Aldous is also brilliant. He is a young post-doc recruited to assist Michael's research. And then there's Tarpin, a builder decidedly not of the same social class as the venerable academic. Things come together at the end of the book's first part. Suffice it to say that Michael Beard's involuntary circumcision at the hands of frost while taking a leak somewhere near Spitzbergen might just have been Mother Nature getting her own back, her feminist equaliser before the stronger opposition has even scored.

Unfortunately for Michael Beard, however, his tendency to spread himself too thinly provokes the termination of his Government-sponsored energy research. The director, Braby, sacks him, an act that injures pride. Michael internalises the rejection not as a failure but as an opportunity, given his multiple avenues of interest. How can it offend him? He's won a Nobel Prize. Can't he do precisely what he wants, even beyond criticism?

Beard is confronted with alternative views of both life and the universe. Everything follows. Later he is apparently committed to just one woman, Melissa, but without marriage, mutually-agreed. But he is constantly pulled elsewhere. His logical-positivist assumptions are questioned, both at home and abroad. People can lie, deconstruct, reconstruct. So can he. The only consistency in his personal life is its inconsistency, constantly inconsistent. But his professional assumptions are questioned by social constructivism, by phenomenological attack on the universality he assumes. The consequence is an irrational but wholly real reconstruction of a reality he thought he had both defined and described. His method of coping is enigmatic and inventive, but its public expression is totally uncontrolled, misconceived.

Michael's research points to a breakthrough in energy production. He can split water using sunlight and catalysts that promote artificial photosynthesis. He can truly harness the sun. Perhaps it vies for the centre of his universe. The results can burn carbon-free to power the world. His new daughter calls him a saviour. But his business brain shares his scientific nodes. He has patents. He hires Hammer to deal with detail, a task he accomplishes supremely until just before the scheduled switch on of the prototype in the New Mexico desert. The rest is history.

Solar presents a multiplicity of themes. But I think its main plank is an age-old conundrum. In an address presenting the Nobel Prize to Beard, a professor refers to Feynman's illustration of the elegance of Beard's Conflation. Tangled, knotted strings that dancers further complicate can, under the right conditions, with the right foresight, fall to a simple untangled simplicity with a single tug. Thus Beard had taken a knotted intellectual theory and let it fall free of its complications.

In his private life, however, Beard truly found complication. What was simple he knotted by quirk, by over-indulgence, by ill-discipline and by visceral opportunity. If the beautiful but independently-minded Melissa was temporarily unavailable across an ocean that provided the vacuum, then the fiftyish, flabby Darlene, a waitress in a New Mexico diner, provided the pressure. But she took her temporary role seriously, an attitude that Michael Beard never expected.

No matter how complicated our lives become, no matter how intertwined, no matter how independently we present identity, career, research or discovery, ultimately they all reduce to a simple cocktail of body fluids, desires - usually only partly fulfilled - and ultimately a resort to self-preservation, a fundamental state that can be obscured by our relentless pursuit of receding detail. Thus Ian McEwan presents a contrast between potentially enduring rationality that seeks out permanence and base, immediate desire driven by instincts we cannot even recognise, let alone control. At the last, it is illusory permanence that presents the true delusion. And what about constancy and the enduringly rational? Ask me tomorrow.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining, intelligent and challenging, 6 May 2010
By 
P. Matthews (UK) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Solar (Hardcover)
This is an enjoyable and interesting book which represents a change of style for Ian McEwan, being less serious than most of his previous work and more in the style of a comedy, satire or even farce in places. It is sometimes reminiscent of the David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury style - not surprising since McEwan took Bradbury's creative writing course. However, it maintains McEwan's familiar arching plot structure, where a mistake or accident early in the book sets up an inevitable, dreaded confrontation towards the end (as in Atonement, Saturday and Amsterdam).

This book is often misleadingly described as being 'about climate change'. In fact it is about many things: science, corruption of science, infidelity, dishonesty, the power of the media, salt and vinegar crisps.

The science in the book is quite convincing; McEwan has clearly done his homework. The invented science is also reasonably plausible. Shame on those reviewers who complain that there is too much science in the book - they have missed one of its main points. I only found one, trivial, error: the "I" in IPCC stands for Intergovernmental.

The disreputable main character is doubtful about climate change, but happy to cash in on the scare and promote bogus solutions. The book also makes fun of a group of "climate change artists" on a trip to the Arctic. Overall, the tone of the book is quite cynical and challenging to the reader, whatever his/her views are on the subject.

The book does have some weaknesses. It lacks the intensity and emotion of his best work, and the ending is rather weak. Also, there are too many affairs, which become tedious and interrupt the narrative (a weakness he seems to have inherited from Bradbury).
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Catheters of ceaseless traffic and the hot breath of civilization, 22 April 2010
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This review is from: Solar (Hardcover)
Given Michael Beard's less than endearing list of personal weaknesses - he's a junk food junkie, a fat, lazy, greedy slob, and a serial adulterer with an impressive collection of five failed marriages - you could be forgiven for thinking that Ian McEwan has a rather low opinion of scientists, were it not that he also makes Beard "unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women". In any case, how we conduct our personal lives does not necessarily reflect how well we do our jobs, and McEwan's award of a Nobel prize in physics (for the Beard-Einstein Conflation) to his central character sets Beard at the top of his profession, except that we also learn that he's done nothing since. The tiny vehicle of Beard's talent "had hitched a ride behind the juggernaut of a world-historical genius". This man of science, who "had an automatic respect for internal consistency", is himself a mass of contradictions. The character flaws, the comic excess, the challenge of tracing a nimble plot through the narrative stodge of climate change - all are carried along by McEwan's fluent style and result in a fine novel.

Ah, that word narrative. To Beard, people "who kept on about narrative tended to have a squiffy view of reality". He's wary of anyone interested in the "epic story" of climate science, when for him all that matters is the science. Even more squiffy is the postmodern "Nancy Temple tendency" to see science as "just one more belief system, no more or less truthful than religion or astrology". The Ms Temple in question, as well as believing that genes did not enjoy an independent existence and were, "in the strongest sense, socially constructed", took exception to Beard's suggestion, on the basis of good scientific evidence, that there were differences between the brains of men and women.

She resigned from a committee rather than share a platform with the odious Beard. In a subtle parallel, many years earlier, Maisie, his first wife, had resigned from their marriage rather than share his objectivity. "There were other ways of knowing the world, women's ways, which he treated dismissively." Maisie and Ms Temple separately express anti-science ideas, absurd enough in isolation, undermined even further by the delicious contradiction between them when placed side by side.

Maisie was studying English literature. Beard boned up on Milton to have something to talk about, and it worked, although the marriage that followed did not. She was not about to return the compliment and go dewy eyed over the Ricci scalar. No third-year arts person could have done what Beard did. "The traffic was one-way. His Milton week made him suspect a monstrous bluff... He suspected there was nothing they talked about there that anyone with half a brain could fail to understand... And yet they passed themselves off as his superiors..." Thirty-odd years later, he finds himself on board a ship in the Arctic, among the grown-up versions of those students, artists and idealists hoping to understand climate change. He "was among scientific illiterates and could have said anything" but didn't. A novelist called Meredith does the reverse. Forgetting there's a physicist present, he pontificates on Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and the moral sphere.

The fictional Meredith plunders science for jargon to impress his gullible peers. The real McEwan, in contrast, is rare among novelists in having a serious appreciation of science, and in arguing that scientific ignorance is nothing to be proud of, but a massive missed opportunity for anyone who claims to be interested in the world. Science matters because it's how we find out about the world. That said, this is still a novel and not a textbook: it's about the character of Michael Beard and not a biography of his scientific career. McEwan is a skilful storyteller and scientific details work their way in seamlessly: at one point Beard wonders whether he will ever wear the dressing gown worn by his wife's lover, which reminded me of the psychologist Bruce Hood's Fred West cardigan (Supersense: From Superstition to Religion - the Brain Science of Belief), and the decision-making mind is described "as a parliament, a debating chamber", which reminded me of a passage in Jonah Lehrer's (The Decisive Moment). These ideas are always germane to plot and character and don't require the reader to go and look anything up. Indeed, many readers may not even realize they've just consumed a scientific concept. (Given his character's and McEwan's respect for internal consistency, it's a surprise to find, within a few lines, "useful tailwind... cutting headwind". This is the minutest exception to the usually clear and lucid prose.)

In the early stages of writing this novel, McEwan had the honour of addressing a meeting attended by several science Nobel laureates, where he felt like the intellectual equivalent of an after-dinner mint. There is a flavour of this modesty in a reflection he gives to his own fictional laureate: "There were novels Aldous wanted him to read - novels!" (Seldom has a single exclamation point had such reflexive charm!) Michael Beard - discoverer of the Beard-Einstein Conflation, pioneer of artificial photosynthesis, would-be climate change hero - almost certainly wouldn't get round to reading this novel, but that doesn't mean the rest of us should follow his example.
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12 of 25 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Ian McEwan - Solar, 22 Mar. 2010
By 
RachelWalker "RachelW" (England) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Solar (Hardcover)
I thought before I read it that I would have mixed feelings about Solar. A novel about global warming? Really? Frankly, I think "about" novels are awful - why not just read an unembellished essay. Humorous? I'm not too sure that McEwan can do funny. (Especially after his claim (which, yes, was possibly taken out of context) that he doesn't like comic novels - though if that is true he dismisses novelists like Angela Carter and Terry Pratchett, a plainly ridiculous assertion. I think, whatever the context, it would be much more sensible to say that you don't like Bad comic novels.) However, I had a slight faith: I'm aware that McEwan probably has the talent and and sense not to make the novel overtly about global warming (and he doesn't), nor overtly humorous (and he doesn't). It is safe to say that Solar is not a comedy, nor is it a polemic "about" global warming. It does, though, have other flaws.

Firstly, let me say that I enjoyed it. Normally I read with a very uncritical eye: I read in the hope I will enjoy, and so do not generally try and spot flaws and mark things down. I would much rather simply enjoy a book for what it is, than read it with a view to criticising it. Somehow that seems to me to be a very counter-productive way of reading, and something that far too many people tend to do. But with Solar I just couldn't help it...

Let me say again, I enjoyed it. But: Solar is too mechanical, too much of a construct. McEwan the author is too much behind the scenes directing events, is too obviously plotting, is too obviously saying "And then this will happen", then stitching it all together with reminiscences from Michael Beard's past and conversations about science. The energy source they are trying to tap - man-made photosynthesis - may be organic, but Solar isn't. And fiction should, I think, always seem organic, to spring and grow from itself. Solar is too planned.

But: We are meant to look with distaste on McEwan's scientist, Michael Beard. But I couldn't. I quite liked him. I felt sorry for him. Maybe I'm too empathetic, but he was just too human (albeit slightly exaggerated) to hate. He was immensely greedy, immensely selfish, thoughtless, critically lazy, but none of his flaws are absolutely damning: a lot of people are very flawed. This next point may seem silly, as it is after all fiction, but McEwan's treatment of Beard, the things he does to him, just seemed callous and cruel to me. This would not be such a problem if I could believe in Beard as a interally real fictional creation, but I couldn't. I was too conscious that he was a creation, a figment (giving him a Nobel Prize didn't help; I KNOW that someone called Michael Beard has never won a Nobel Prize in Physics, and this knowledge trumps the fiction McEwan tries to present.) This implausibility strengthened my impression that Michael Beard has these things done *to* him, not by him, and made me a bit frustrated and angry that McEwan was putting him through such a mill. Beard has the qualities of a slapstick actor: aware that the situations he is in are ridiculous, but, unable to protest them or change them, he must knowingly submit. He cannot change and does not try; and that this is caused by the belief that some God (McEwan) is playing mean tricks on him is more plausible a reason for his inertia than any that might be found in the personality of the character McEwan has created! (And because I do not believe in Beard, his actions are even further justifiable: it is not his own callousness that allows an innocent man to be jailed, it is McEwan's.)

Further points re: Michael Beard: I cannot reconcile that a man capable of the ideas in the speech on page 150, is then incapable of being able to apply, or even to see that the same principles *might* be applied, to his own life (I know humans are capable of massive lackings in the area of thought, but I still do not believe this). Also, it annoyed me that McEwan made him fat. Why is it funny, or satirical, for a character to a eat a midnight snack? This is something people all over the world do all of the time. What reflection does this have on his character? None. Yet why does McEwan note it so markedly? Plus, I would imagine that being fat is not funny. Being so critically fat is, for the individual, as serious as global warming is for the planet. (And, no, that is *not* the point.) It just struck me as lazy. Individual gluttony is the perfect microcosm for global warming, but it is surely too easy? Beard shows gluttony of spirit, soul, as well as appetite.

Further: there is too much science. I do not think there is ever any point in including terms in fiction that the general reader will not understand, even with the intention of verisimilitude. As soon as a I saw a long science word, I skipped the paragraph. I do not care. No one reading this book will.

I feel bad for being so critical, but for me it just did not work. It is too easy to see through Solar. It is not a novel about global warming, it is a novel about gluttony and selfishness, but relating this to the global climate scene is not especially revelatory, and is perhaps even unnecessary. It is a novel that rests and falls on its lead character's character, and could be called Beard rather than Solar (and probably should be, were that not an awful title; Solar places too much emphasis on that which the novel is not actually about). Beard is a protagonist who could potentially be one of the brilliant grotesques of fiction, but because I did not believe in him, he is just a sorry mess of flesh that I could only feel sympathy for. And this is where Solar falls, and is more of a Lunar eclipse.

I enjoyed it, though. oddly. There are funny moments (though I must say not many), in particular this bit from page 6: "Catching sight of the conical pink mess in the misted full-length mirror as he came out of the shower, he wiped down the glass, stood full on and took a disbelieving look. What engines of self-persuasion had let him think for so many years that looking like this was seductive?" There are some brilliant sentences. The plot is actually rather excellent, and comes to a head fantastically (though it does not come without more of my sorrow on poor Beard's behalf). And the speeches Beard makes about global warming are wonderful. (Though the whole monster-behind the genius thing frustrates me as well: V.S. Naipaul anyone? Since when has anyone's personal character been any kind of reflection on their scientific/artistic etc. output?) Indeed, I would almost *have* read an essay by McEwan on global warming.

After reading this review, you may wonder why I give it 3 (i've since docked one!) stars, or continue to profess that I enjoyed it, but I did. It doesn't really hold water for me for the reasons I suggest, but I don't regret reading it. And, happily, McEwan doesn't think if necessary to give much voice to global-warming deniers, like the Abominable Snowwoman Susan Hill, and treats them as deserved in the paragraph I'd like to close with:

"If you drew a graph of average yearly temperatures it would be a zigzag, but a rising zigzag. When you take an exceptionally hot year as your starting point, you can easily show a decline, at least for a few years. That's an old trick, called framing, or cherry-picking. As for these scientists who signed some contrarian document, they're in a minority of a thousand to one. Ornithologists, epidemiologists, oceanographers and glaciologists, salmon-fishermen and ski-lift operators, the consensus is overwhelming. Some weak-brained journalists write against it because they think it's a sign of independent thinking. And there's plenty of attention out there for a professor who'll speak against it. There are bad scientists, just like there are rotten singers and terrible cooks."

Sorry for the length.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Review of Ian McEwan's SOLAR, 29 May 2010
By 
T. Hopkins "Trevor Hopkins" (England, near Poole, Dorset) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Solar (Hardcover)
Before reading SOLAR I did not know whether to expect it would be a humorous book, though it soon became evident that it was both as a satire on human nature and a wider political satire. Professor Beard, the eminent physicist in his professional life, is in deep contrast to his chaotic private life especially when relating to his estranged wives, strange girlfriends, and to most other people. Despite this chaos he has the intelligence to turn damaging personal situations to his advantage even if this shows him up to be devious and immoral! Ian McEwan as always keeps the reader guessing and challenges our own views as to the ethics behind the character's thought processes and actions. When it comes to the serous matter of global warming as suggested by the book's title, this is almost sidelined as irrelevant much as politicians might do, which no doubt is the authors satirical intention? I read SOLAR whilst recovering from a heart attack and hospital treatment, an experience that came to me suddenly and unexpectedly but one which I tried to absorb in an almost existentialistic way trying to make sense of it all. Ian McEwan's book I must say was an interesting and helpful read at a time when human nature is at its most sensitive in so many ways.
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1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Only OK but should be read, 25 April 2010
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This review is from: Solar (Hardcover)
Amazon's star rating system allows you only, I hate it, I don't like it, It's OK, I like it, I love it. The middle option, it's OK, could easily be mistrued, since stress and intonation can give this response quite a range. For me, I mean it to be neutral. OK means a competent piece of work. The McEwan elements are there: well wrought sentences, the delaying of explanation to puzzling moments, the plot's synecdoche. But it did not entertain me. I admire the precision of McEwan's descriptive prose. He is a great stylist. But I find something always less than profound - even comically weak - in some of his plot devices. This is true of Solar.

We stay within the mind of the protagonist's (Nobel prize winning physicist and ego and notable fat man, who steals the secret of artificial photosynthesis from a dead collaborator and lover of his last of many wives, and goes on to descend into the mire while trying to save the world by bringing his 'invention' to a reality) as his life of deceit ties him up in knots. But little comes a surprise. Many of the scenes are curiously reminiscent like déjà vu and there is no suspense even as we wade through pages of narrative to get to the cause of an event dropped in as a surprise. The science and the economics are interesting, and McEwan has managed to weave them into Beard's points of view and reasons for action without making it too much like preaching, yet, as a dramatic tale, Solar, doesn't work for me.

It should be read, however, because the message stands starkly against the duller backdrop of the narrative. The physicist, Beard, stands for the human enterprise, fat and insatiable consumer, who has the technology to save the planet but cannot do it because the technology is corrupted, founded on a lie. Beard himself thinks it too late to save the planet, but even so he presses on for fame and money. Throughout the book the subtext shines through. Capitalism cannot answer our needs because it has requires consumption to advance. Sustainable economies offer no solutions since they cannot provide the capital accumulation to 'advance' the economy. Destruction and waste are not unhappy byproducts of free markets but are the very heart of them. The 'lie' of Capitalism is that it transfers true costs away from its earnings just as its supporting banking systems transfer losses into weirder and weirder monetary instruments. This is the message of Solar, capitalism will destroy the world. For McEwan, the capitalist ethos is not founded, as we are used to thinking, on Puritan ethics, but on original sin.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Darkly Comical, scientifically compex and politically satirical, 6 Jun. 2010
By 
C. Ryan "bookfan" (UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Solar (Hardcover)
This was a very enjoyable read, darkly comical in parts, sometimes scientifically complex and politically satirical.
The Novel is divided into three parts, each Joins Professor Michael Beard, at a fifferent point in time 5 years on from the last. In each segment the characther grows in a different direction in response to the circumstances that present themselves. But he remains believable throught the book - albeit unlikeable.
Essentially the background theme of the novel is climate change and the quest for alternatives to fossil fuels. There are a lot of facts and science thrown into the novel to support this - but I believe that the story could have been centred around any ageing academic, business figure or polititician and still be a similar narrative. Sure, it's making an environmental and politcal statements - but this isn't doesn't make the novel 'heavy going'.

I'm ashamed to admit that this is my first Ian McEwan novel, but I will definately be reading his other books over the course of the next year
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars It's okay, 9 Sept. 2014
By 
Mike (livingston) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Solar (Kindle Edition)
ok, well written but storyline is a little lightweight
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1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Even better, 17 April 2010
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This review is from: Solar (Hardcover)
Mr. McEwan is an old favourite. Obviously I expected something good, but I was prepared to receive a respectable failure. No one can write about both the human condition and the possibilities of solar power without taking incredible philosohical and linguistic hazards.

Well, I didn't receive a failure. Even by Ian McEwan's standards this book is a tour de force. Possibly better than Amsterdam. This is the work of fiction we've been waiting for. We serious people; the ones that have thought about things for the last decade; the ones who would love to have a planet for our great grand children. The book is funny, beautifully written, and, should I say, urgent.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Made me laugh out loud, 29 May 2010
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This review is from: Solar (Hardcover)
I have read all of Ian McEwan's previous novels and was looking forward to this one as climate change is something I'm well informed about and I wondered how he would approach this. I like his subtle black humour in earlier writing but really didn't expect something so funny, it reminds of Eveyln Waugh in places, quite farcical at one level but well observed. It's true the main character is unsympathetic but you can't help but feel sorry for him bumbling through life. I suspect many highly esteemed experts feel like this below this surface, we're all human after all. Well worth a read whether or not you care about this issues.
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Solar by Ian McEwan (Paperback - 3 Mar. 2011)
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