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169 of 191 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sharp-edged Solar Satire, Sacred and Profane
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...
Published on 22 Mar 2010 by Niall Alexander

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47 of 52 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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47 of 52 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Exploring climate change through the lens of human nature, 17 Jan 2011
By 
Jeremy Williams (Luton) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Solar (Paperback)
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 file full of brilliant ideas from a young post-grad, and claiming the work as his own, Beard sets out to build a new technology that will single-handedly solve the world's energy crisis and stop climate change.

I won't spoil it for you by saying any more about the story - not that there is much of a story. Like the protagonist, Solar sort of bumbles along, following Beard to the Arctic and back, to conferences, lectures, bored nights in motel rooms, until it suddenly picks up at the end as Beard's various mistakes all suddenly begin to catch up with him all at once.

Michael Beard is such a thoroughly unlikeable character that I nearly gave up halfway through, but there are enough flashes of humour or interesting observations about human nature to make it worth persevering. It's not a great book - the reviewers panning it here have a point. Much of the book is mundane, well written but rather empty and moping. Nothing of any real interest happens until a good third of the way in, and the ending is somewhat contrived. Nevertheless, it's a satire and McEwan is attempting something rather bold - exploring climate change through the lens of human nature. Read that way, I think McEwan pulls it off, although I do wonder what his established fans will make of it.
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169 of 191 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sharp-edged Solar Satire, Sacred and Profane, 22 Mar 2010
This review is from: Solar (Hardcover)
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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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good reason for mixed reviews!, 12 April 2011
This review is from: Solar (Paperback)
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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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars 4/5 of the book brilliant, last 1/5 terrible, 21 Aug 2010
By 
M. Sundström (Lund, Sweden) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Solar (Hardcover)
Short version:
Buy it, read it, enjoy it. Just beware that 50-60 pages or so are plot duds.

Longer version:
Michael Beard, combining professional failure with a Nobel Prize (some feat!) has many problems in his life, not least marital. Being a scholar myself (though admittedly a lowly social scientist) I thoroughly enjoyed the parts about academic rivalry and backstabbing, though my seat of learning seems comparatively mellow in this respect. The drama of Beard's home life rings fewer bells, but Beard's dysfunctional social skills make for a good read. There are many, many paragraphs that I re-read to savour Beard's egocentric wit. Line by line, the black comedy is great, and this is why you should fork up that tenner to buy the book. The problem is the plotting. First, there are whole chunks that are set-pieced that can be, and possibly should have been, ripped out. A long section details Beard's trip to the Arctic and the many misfortunes and incidents he suffers in the (very) sub-zero conditions. Brilliant stuff I thought as I followed Beard trying to go for a pee outdoors, and eventually having to pour brandy on his penis to extract it from the zipper where it had frozen in place. The problem is that this mini-story has no function beyond plain comedy. Or has it? I happened upon an interview where McEwan explained that he himself had been on just such an expedition, and that this is what got him going on what would eventually become Solar. To me, then, this is a darling that McEwan wouldn't kill for nostalgic reasons, nor was able to turn into an integral part of the story.

I submit that such set pieces are worrying enough, but what snatched off one or even two stars from my rating is the end. McEwan sweats and heaves to have the by now sprawling sub-plots converge and be resolved at, or very close to, a culminating event where Beard's future life will be determined. Nothing in these pages is remotely credible. Just one example: if you had a massive business project together with a (Nobel laureate) scientist, and was at some point - years down the road - hit by legal action challenging his awarded patents (as based on very flimsy reasoning too), would you immediately crumble and tell your long-term business partner and friend that the collaboration was over and that you hated him? Or... would you believe your friend (the Nobel laureate) who states that this is patent BS, and take comfort from the fact that litigation will take decades? Or let me put this to you (this is not a spoiler in the normal sense): say that you read about a character that, from page one, hated peas. Over and over you learn about how he is mentally wired to detest even things that remind him of peas; how he is happy to hear of misfortunes in industries even vaguely associated with the production of peas. Then, ON THE FINAL PAGE, when the character finds himself in a what amounts to a crisis, a single green pea rolls towards him, glistening with freshness and allure... and he finds that he loves it (and by extension has a chance at redemption). Credible? I think not.

Should you buy it?
Sure. Most of it is a good read, and you are likely to laugh out loud on many occasions. Indeed it is its unfulfilled potential that is so annoying - why did McEwan have to mar it with such an imbecilic end?
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A cartoon, 25 July 2012
By 
This review is from: Solar (Paperback)
Ian McEwan does comedy. Who knew?

The problem is this book is entirely frivolous. The science sounds assiduously researched, but the eco-technology is really just a backdrop. This book is all about its central character Michael Beard.

Literature is full of comic monsters. But for all their comedic value, they have a certain edge to them and a modicum of self-insight, if only into what motivates them to spite the rest of humanity. They usually have a sense of humour about the world they plot to subvert as well. None of these are present in Beard. He is all Falstaff and no Iago. A buffoon in other words. How curiously old fashioned a concept.

Short, fat, gluttonously forever putting off his health regime, five times married and with all his best work in theoretical physics long behind him as he exists and trades off his former glories. Now the fear, despair and anxiety that arises by the nagging thought that your first ever piece of work will never be surpassed by anything else you do in your life, ought to make for a fascinating theme. It's sidelined here which is a shame and a missed opportunity. Beard rarely seems troubled by his coasting through life and other people. He is too feckless even to aspire to a Napoleon Complex befitting his small and persecuted stature.

The book builds slowly as he lurches through one crisis to another, which he refers to as "adding to the general untidiness (of his life)". While I believe he is obsessed by sex, I don't believe his improbable continued success with the ladies. Yes some might have been attracted by his fame. Or the women might have been ivory tower dweller inadequates themselves. But the ones we are introduced to here are from more humble stock, a waitress, a school teacher and a dance costume shop owner. Only one is palpably desperate, so how do the others see past his flab to find anything attractive about a man without a single redeemable feature in his personality? McEwan supplies these women with motivations, but they don't ring true when it comes to basic animal attraction. Is he losing his usually sure grip?

Beard is a caricature, the book is a cartoon. I'm not saying it isn't amusing and witty and clever in places, it is. McEwan is an arch stylist and linguist after all. But we laugh at Beard not with him. His blindspots, his delusions, his alternating inappropriate observance or ignoring of etiquette in social situations. He is so benighted and inadequate we ought to feel sorry for him and guilty at our laughter at his expense. Yet he is so privileged, so insensitive to those lesser mortals around him, we simply can't feel for him.

A further slightly worrying trend for me is that Rodney Trapin, a key protagonist in the unfolding story here, is portrayed as a stock working-class caricature, just as the assailant in "Saturday" was. What the UK media (and now politicians) love to call 'White-Van man". It's alarming because it suggests to me a blindness towards a class outside of McEwan's own (a blindness one shared by Martin Amis) and rather an outdated chip on his shoulder about the other, that which he does not understand and actually seems to fear, at least to judge by these two recent portraits. Yet in his early books, McEwan suggested a great understanding of such a class of people. Has his success so removed him from experiencing such people in the present as to update his own personal reading of such folk?

And on to the ending. Without giving anything away, it is farcical that all the loose strands of his life, all the wronged people seeking redress, most of whom reside in Britain, traipse out to the New Mexico desert to confront him. I am reminded of a Whitehall farce, again curiously old-fashioned and somewhat improbable. A humanus ex machina.

Beard is no Holden Caulfield or Saul Karoo. Despite much learned discursion on solar energy, quantum physics, gender politics of the 1960s, the book remains unworthy of McEwan's reputation for gravitas. That doesn't make it a bad book, it just makes it a bad McEwan book. I mildly enjoyed reading it for the humour and language. But I insist he return to form in his next offering if I am still to remain a fan. I found this as bloated as Beard's abused body.
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30 of 35 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars McEwan's worst book to date, 12 Nov 2010
By 
Jl Adcock "John Adcock" (Ashtead UK) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Solar (Hardcover)
If you compare the professional reviews of "Solar" with the more realistic views expressed my many Amazon reviewers here, it's fair to say that this isn't a great book in the opinion of many. And I would have to agree. "Solar" is quite a short novel by today's standards, but it reads like a very long one indeed. McEwan presents us with a detailed and ultimately pointless story of Michael Beard, a Noble Prize-winning scientist who over the duration of the book (2000, 2005, 2009) continues a journey of self-destructive abuse, juggling career and personal disasters in equal measure. Indeed it reads more like 3 linked short stories about the same unlikeable man than as a novel.

It's done with the usual McEwan attention to detail and sharp writing. But apparently this time (according to some) we also get humour. If that's the case then it certainly completely eluded my reading of the book. Sure, there were over-laboured attempts and being funny, but that's not the same as effortless humour. This is something that McEwan doesn't bring to his books, any lightness of touch or self-depracation is lost in the po-faced, technical writing that outlines his characters and the dilemmas they find themselves in.

Usually, McEwan gets his books off to interesting, tantalising starts and then loses interest and ends them with weak conclusions. This time, he seems to start off as he means to continue: with a turgid and uninteresting story about an unlikeable main character that tells us much about greed and avarice and the backbiting, snippy world of science, but it just doesn't go anywhere. Anyone else penning such stuff would find it hard to get published. That McEwan has managed to garner such lavish praise for such mediocre work tells you much about the gulf that exists between what readers really think, and what paid reviewers in the newspapers want you to believe.

A really dreary book that I was relieved to finish.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Solar eclipses all previous work, 14 July 2011
By 
Mr. Timothy W. Dumble (Sunderland, England) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Solar (Paperback)
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 Humankind,self indulgent,unable to control his self destructive visceral urges,unable to save himself let alone the World.'Solar' is a powerful indictment of modern consumerism in which Beard lives for the moment, a sybarite seeking the short cut to success and hapiness,an amoral shadow of his former self.

Fans of McEwan should be warned that 'Solar' represents a very different read to some of his other work eg 'Amsterdam', Saturday' or 'On Chesil Beach'. The authentic and well researched science might not be to the taste of all readers although non scientists should persevere as they will enjoy the arts v science theme developed hilariously within.What it does contain however are many examples of McEwan's familiar talent in the art of the simile alongside a previously less demonstrated ability to deliver comic one liners with panache- none better than the dead polar bears quip.

Justice is seen to be done in the denouement with Beard's hubris and self delusion unravelling with comic results-will we also have time to experience a similar ephiphany with respect to global warming?Beard's inevitable demise is deliciously ironic coming as it will from his beloved solar photons.In the flawed humanity of Michael Beard 'Solar' asks how can we save the world when we can't even look after ourselves?
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Are you McEwen in disguise?, 31 May 2011
This review is from: Solar (Paperback)
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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Messy, but readable, 18 Mar 2011
This review is from: Solar (Kindle Edition)
I didn't dislike this book; it's topical and funny. Ian McEwan has been criticised for taking a lot of artistic licence with the scientific theory, but I think that's fine. It's a work of fiction, after all, not a doctoral thesis. Beard is a strong enough central character and although the plot is lacking, the pace is good. But it does read like a series of metaphors in search of a story.

After many marital infidelities Beard is about to divorce his fifth wife. But on discovering that she doesn't appear to care and is, in fact, having an affair of her own, he develops an obsession with her and changes his mind. A Nobel Laureate, he hasn't done any serious science since winning his prize, but his name still spells fund money in the scientific world and he is not short of lucrative offers of one sort or another. He takes a high profile assignment with a government funded initiative committed to enlisting the public in the search for ideas to combat global warming.

He continues to obsess about his wife, but he lacks the emotional depth necessary to win her back. In a final bid to rid himself of his fixation he accepts an offer to join a group of climate change activists on an expedition to the Arctic Circle. He is ill-equipped, being fat, alcoholic, anti-social and completely uninterested in climate-change. He finds himself the only scientist in a group of artists, no climate changing ideas are forthcoming and everyone mislays their arctic outdoor gear, and so steals other people's, on a daily basis. Yes, you've guessed, it's a metaphor for global warming and the way in which we fail to take care of the resources which are most important to us. Very heavy handed on the metaphor front, but still a funny piece of prose.

On Beard's return, a sequence of events leads him to a decision to resurrect his career and he begins work on clean energy research in a cynical attempt to appeal to the zeitgeist. The rest of the book deals with the vain, greedy, self-obsessed, emotionally sterile and opportunistic Beard as he attempts to gain new recognition and corporate investment. On the way he continues to betray his women, gobble his food, drink more, grow fatter and avoid responsibility for all of it. He has enough insight to know he's on a destructive path, but insufficient self-control to put a stop to it. Yes, he's a metaphor too. Eventually, all the individual strands of his greedy, lascivious, self-serving and badly constructed life converge. Is it too late for redemption? Well, I don't want to give the ending away.

The book is readable, but the writing is messy and undisciplined. It needs a much tighter structure to elevate it from merely readable to a good novel.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Nearly, but not quite, very good, 10 Feb 2011
By 
davidT "Omnivore" (Hildesheim, Germany) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Solar (Paperback)
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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