Customer Review

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
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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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 12 Mar 2011 13:34:38 GMT
Gorilla says:
what about the contemporary relevance of the subplots? why bother with solar energy and how institutional science works and how the frailty of an individual can so deeply affect the outcome of seminal research? I think a lot of main points have been missed here.

Posted on 26 Nov 2011 17:14:34 GMT
"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." Perfectly phrased. The whole Arctic episode could have been removed with no great loss. I do hope McEwan gets himself a more ruthless editor for his next book. Great review by the way.
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