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3.1 out of 5 stars
Solar
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
There are many good things in Solar. The quality of writing is superb throughout and the book is worth reading just as an adventure in use of language. There is a lot of wit laced with black humour and satire. Unlike some critics I thoroughly enjoyed the digressions into physics even though much of it went over my head. However, "saving the planet" is an important issue, even for those who don't actually believe the planet is in peril, and McEwen concisely summarises most of the key issues. The characterisation of Michael Beard - the fat, greedy anti-hero - was excellent. The man was consistently repellant and morally bankrupt, yet not unlovable. It takes real skill to make a sympathetic character out of Michael Beard, but McEwan manages to do it. (The scary thing is that there is a bit of Michael Beard in all of us, if we're honest; at least there is in me. Apologies to anyone to whom this observation does not apply.) Unfortunately the book has flaws, which is unsurprising as it is probably impossible to write a humorous book that is "perfect". Amongst the things I didn't like were the "carry on" moments where wit gave way to slapstick humour, for example the polar expedition where Michael Beard suffers frostbite whilst urinating in sub-zero temperatures. (This might just be a sense of humour failure on my part because I note that other people found that episode really funny.) There were moments of pure self-indulgence, for example where McEwan describes over two pages of tedious detail the descent of an aeroplane over West London before landing. The final quarter of the book was weak regarding the plot line. It is difficult to find a satisfactory ending for a humorous book and even McEwan can't do it. I was left feeling somehow unsatisfied. Having said all this, I found the book very readable and entertaining - I enjoyed it more than any other of McEwan's book apart from On Chesil Beach. For any other writer, I'd give this book 5 stars. But because the author is Ian McEwan and because he's underperformed by his own high standards, I'm afraid I can only give three stars.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 10 February 2011
I couldn't avoid the feeling when reading this book that it was a reworking of Kingsley Amis' One Fat Englishman. Not that Michael Beard is quite as monstrous as Roger Micheldene, but there's the same totally selfish dedication to over-indulgence in every respect, and the same disregard of other people's feelings - or even an ignorance that other people might have feelings.
Interestingly, we start the story by being on Professor Beard's side, as we learn that his wife is openly having an affair while still staying in the marital home. This sympathy doesn't last long though, as we rapidly realise Beard himself has pretty impressive form in the infidelity stakes, and has already strayed several times in this, his fifth, marriage. However, it's fortunately not necessary actually to like the main character to enjoy reading a book.
I don't know Ian McEwan's educational background, but he's done an impressive amount of work swotting up some basic physics and solar theory, enough at any rate to convince this unlearned reader that he knows what he's talking about.
Other good points for me were the splendid descriptions, particlularly of being in a plane circling London before coming in to Heathrow, and following that, a misunderstanding in the train. This was not at all spoiled for me when I recognised it as being a retelling of a fairly standard urban myth (and indeed one of the other characters later thinks that's what it is), because the narration is so skilled.
The minus points? Although I quite enjoyed the expedition to the Arctic, I couldn't see what the relevance of it was, as it didn't seem to tie into the story at any point. Not a big deal, I suppose, but in a fairly short book you expect more tightness, with every scene and incident pulling its weight, and that wasn't always the case. There was possibly a sense of dragging in one or two set pieces to push it over some notional 'novel-length' threshold.
The other sticking point for me, and the reason I can't give it five stars, is the ending. What is all that about? Where did that complete about-turn in attitudes come from? Are we supposed to gather that he's had some sort of minor breakdown and is now about to become a better, nicer person? I'm afraid I don't buy that.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 18 June 2010
Ian McEwan's Prof Michael Beard is possibly the most ignoble Nobel prize winners there has ever been. He's gloriously obnoxious and hateful in almost every way. Since winning his prize this Nobel Laureate has rested on his Nobel laurels and has traded on his reputation rather than physics. When this book starts, he's on his fifth wife having managed to wreck all previous marriages by his compulsive infidelity. He's short, balding, ageing and obese, bigoted, and something of an opportunist, particularly if it means he can be lazy and get away with something. In short, (which he is), he's morally vacant. But what makes Beard an effective creation and what carries us along with him, despite his obnoxiousness, is that he knows all these things about himself. He's rather like Shakespeare's Richard III - he's honest with the reader and himself about what he is doing. Sure he would like to change, but talking about it isn't doing it, is it?

And here is where the personal character links merge with the general themes of the story. Climate change. At least in one reading of this book, Beard's approach to his own well-being (particularly his ballooning weight) is similar to the West's approach to global warming - lots of talk, but depressingly little action.

It's not so much a book about climate change per se. Sure, Beard ends up working on a solar solution to the energy crisis - only because he's managed to acquire someone else's ideas of course - but along the way there are swipes at science, global warming itself, the press and political correctness. McEwan has mastered the comic art of taking arguments to the edge of reason and fractionally beyond to make them funny, without going too far into the absurd. There's a grain of truth in much of what comes out of Beard's mouth - as more than a grain of food passes in the opposite direction.

Many have called this a comic book - I'm not so sure. Yes, it has some highly comic scenes, and some bordering on farce, but it's more of a serious book that has plenty of funny passages. Often the comedy is used to get over particularly grim messages. It is a terrific character study of a thoroughly nasty, lecherous, self-centred, obnoxious man, with plenty of dark humour and satire thrown in. And it is superbly researched - as you would expect from McEwan.

For me, it certainly doesn't "eclipse" McEwan's earlier work, but it's characteristically well written, highly readable, and thought provoking - not bad for a book labelled as a comic work.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 6 November 2011
This is an entertaining book. It'll make you chuckle occasionally, but don't expect belly laughs. Sadly, however, it missed the spot for me.

Obviously a great deal of research has gone into this book, which focusses on the gentle downward spiral of Michael Beard, a once-eminent scientist who is past his best. There are some loosely interesting satirical issues at hand, especially around Governmental approaches to climate change, and how they interface with science and scientific efforts to tackle the problem.

I did finish it. I don't like not finishing books, even the very worst ones. But the ending was, to say the least, a bit of a let down. Why bother reading a few hundred pages when the author isn't going to tell you what happens in the end?

Worth a look. But other McEwan books are better.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 12 September 2011
There seemed to be no plot, just a meandering journey through an unpleasant character's promiscuous love life. Occasionally, references to what were touted to be cutting-edge green technologies were clumsily inserted, but this felt very artificial as if the author remembered that there needed to be some element of the book that related to the title.

It appeared that the author had two amusing anecdotes (crisps and peeing) that he was keen to use regardless of the plot. These were indeed carefully crafted, but ultimately they were asides with no relevance to what little plot there was.

The ending was rushed, fairly predictable and ultimately disappointing.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 25 November 2011
Hard to know why this is a book difficult to put down. Michael Beard, the central character, is obnoxious, amoral, living his life on past academic glory, using and abusing all around him in his personal and academic life. Hard to see too why he has been attractive to so many women, and he certainly doesn't deserve the beautiful Patrice of the earlier part of the novel, nor the lovely Melissa of his later life. Yet the story is engagingly clever, the writing always immaculate, and the reader is intrigued to know what will become of the accumulated sins of Michael Beard. There are well researched passages of detailed academic debate on climate change and the search for alternative forms of energy, in particular the 'Solar' of the title - and I admit to speed reading these sections. Refreshingly though,along the way the book is funny, satirical, and takes a gentle poke at various totems - the academic conference, climate change debate, incestuous acadademia itself, the British Honours system, the extremes of feminism, creative and performance art, American razzamatazz. By the end though, I was glad to leave Michael Beard behind and move on - but this was worth the read.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 12 April 2011
Just glancing at the star ratings for this book and I can see why the reception is so mixed. It's no spoiler to say the book ends on a huge cliff hanger and that is massively frustrating for the reader. However I can't agree with people saying that the fundamental problem lies in the dislike-ability of the protagonist. Yes he's an ass, in the style of a Martin Amis character, but this does not make the novel any less readable. A very weird read but certainly one worth persevering with; I personally did not get bored half way through. I rarely have time to finish a book these days but I finished this.
I should add that for those of you who are fans of Atonement, do not expect the same treatment here. This is a very modern novel in the vein of David Lodge or Martin Amis as opposed to the slightly sepia-toned atmosphere of McEwan's other works.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 22 December 2013
I was very disappointed by this. Even if, as some reviewers claim, it's a cunning satire on how the world, like Beard, is sleep-walking to an oblivion of its own making, this is an overlong and very dull, flat portrayal. I constantly had to urge myself on, through frankly an unrealistic plotline, a unpleasant central character, and little in the way of saving grace throughout this humdrum journey.

McEwan seems to forget the importance of 'showing' rather than 'telling' and his inclusion of lengthy speeches by Beard are an exercise in how to disengage a reader.So many of the characters appear two-dimensional, there is little tension in the plot, and I found it hard to believe that this was written by someone who I have always admired as a writer, from his short stories to novels of depth & imagination such as 'Atonement' and 'Saturday'.

If you don't know McEwan's work, these are titles well worth exploring; if you do, ignore this and try Jon Mcgregor's marvellous debut If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 31 May 2011
Strange book this, I've read all of McEwen's previous novels and its unlike anything he's produced before. Its more humourous and light-weight and the Physicist Micheal Beard is as self absorbed and as unsympathetic as they come. The storyline pops along just fine but I struggled to care about it or anyone in it. I'm not sure what he's trying to say here - there are some interesting insights into climate change but because the overall ambience is jokey I was never sure how seriously to take them. Mid-life crisis? climate change? escaping or not the consequences of our actions? its all there, but for me it felt shallow and trite, not something I ever thought I'd say about McEwen - and had his name not been on the cover I'd have sworn blind it wasn't his. Its as well written as you'd expect, but in my opinion, its not a good place to start with McEwen if you are new to him. I'd recommend The Child in Time, The Comfort of Strangers or Cement Garden or more recently Saturday/Atonement.
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171 of 194 people found the following review helpful
Only a hundred pages into the latest novel from perhaps the greatest living British writer do you begin to grasp the conflict at the core of Solar. As with the vast majority of McEwan's fiction, the narrative turns on a single, earth-shattering event that rips out the rug from under its protagonist. In Solar, the game-changer occurs upon sometime Nobel laureate Michael Beard's return from a week observing first-hand the effects of climate change in the Arctic circle - which is to say, drinking copious quantities of wine and inventing amusing anecdotes to recount at a later date.

Eager for the comforts of hearth and home, Beard returns to London on an early flight only to find one of his research students in his luxurious apartment, naked but for Beard's own dressing gown. The philandering physicist isn't surprised to find his fifth - count 'em - wife with another man, but when Beard confronts the intruder, an already precarious situation develops into a farce of tragic proportions.

Beard is perhaps McEwan's most repellent protagonist to date, and considering the murderers, paedophiles and pimply teenagers who have narrated some of his previous tales, that's saying something. Beard is old, fat and full of himself; he eats, cheats and greets. He is "scalded by public disgrace... corrupted by a whiff of failure [and] consumed by his cranky affair with sunbeams". His inner monologue invariably borders on the unspeakable, by turns racist, lecherous and homophobic.

But Beard's greatest sin is surely his appetite - and I don't merely mean his enduring love for salt and vinegar crisps, though you get the sense that habit alone will see him in an early grave. From the outset, he consumes. He has consumed five wives, the latest of whom outright detests him. He consumes headlines, opinions, science, gossip. In fact, he has made his name in quantum physics by consuming and regurgitating Einstein for his hypothesis, the Beard-Einstein Conflation, earning the Nobel prize that is Beard's only real success by riding on the theoretical coattails of that scientist's breakthroughs. He is a compulsive consumer, and it's a credit to McEwan that Solar remains compelling in spite of its protagonist's unapologetic repugnance.

In large part, that's thanks to the black and brilliantly British sense of humour that pervades the narrative. From the discovery of "an ancient rasher of bacon doubling as a bookmark" between the pages of a valuable first edition to Beard's dreadful scheme to trick his fifth wife into thinking he is entertaining attractive company; and from a packet of salt and vinegar crisps shared (or not quite) on a train ride to an inconvenient call of nature during his weeklong expedition to the Arctic circle, there are frequent moments of dark slapstick more befitting The Mighty Boosh than the latest novel from the great nation's most esteemed author.

The humour is sharp-edged, of course; a fine satirical blade held tightly against the throat of a world procrastinating on its not-quite-fears of climate change. A long and wonderfully cutting lecture Beard gives midway through Solar forms the basis of McEwan's framing of the arguments for and against, but these concerns are not the crux of this novel: Solar doesn't preach in the fashion of Saturday. It is a character study at its heart, a startling triptych of the movements - both literal and metaphorical - of a physically and morally unpleasant man the whims of fate have placed in a position of power. In that, as in its every other purpose, Solar is a tremendous success.

Packed full of observations both sacred and profane and characters who will challenge your understanding of any number of issues, Solar is far from the dry tale of the end-times many feared it might be. Rather, McEwan's novel is an alarming parable of man and movement; the movements man should make, that is, set against those he selfishly does. Shocking, hilarious and unashamedly English, Solar will surely take its place alongside the very best of this breathtaking author's back-catalogue. Let it be said, Ian McEwan is a very clever monkey indeed.
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