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14 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Light Reading, 24 Mar 2010
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This review is from: Solar (Hardcover)
With "Solar," Ian McEwan takes on the comic novel as well as the mega topic of anthropogenic climate change. The result is entertaining and at times thought provoking, but it is not wholly successful. McEwan is let down by his central character who is unlikeable and unconvincing.

"Solar" revolves around Michael Beard, whom we are told won a Nobel Prize for physics in 1972 for discovering the "Beard-Einstein Conflation'" a breakthrough in the field of... oh never mind. Beard's story is told in three episodes. The first finds him in 2000 at the age of 53. He is living of his past fame, harvesting seats on commissions and visiting lectureships and serving as part-time chairman of the National Centre for Renewable Energy. He is 15 lbs overweight. His marriage to his fifth wife is falling apart as a result of, unusually, her, rather than his, affair. A bizarre accident involving - with appropriate irony - a polar bear rug presents Beard with the double opportunity to avenge himself on an adversary and steal some intellectual property.

The second episode advances to 2005. Beard is now 35 lbs overweight. He is involved with Melissa, a comforting woman determined to have his baby. He is working frantically to develop "his" new theory of artificial photosynthesis and has become famous all over again.

In the final episode, we reach 2009. Beard, now 65 lbs overweight, is on the brink of the commercial launch of "his" invention at a site in New Mexico. He is also shacked up in a trailer home with a fifty-something waitress named Darlene. The sins and excesses of his past begin to catch up.

"Solar," thankfully, is not a polemic on global warming. Certainly, all the familiar arguments are paraded out, but these are counterbalanced by Beard's shallow agnosticism: "In fact, greenery in general - gardening, country rambles, protest movements, photosynthesis, salads - was not to his taste." The epigraph also gives us a clue that Beard's chronic inability to control his appetites stands as a metaphor for humanity's inability to make short term sacrifices for the longer term good. As for the physics, McEwan scatters references to science like raisins. The novel contains a clever wink at this. We learn that while at Oxford, Beard boned up on Milton as a step in his seduction of a third year English student. He smugly reflects on how easy it was for a physicist to bluff his way through the English major's territory whereas the reverse would be unimaginable. However, McEwan makes a good fist of it here.

McEwan makes an easy transition to comedy. His signature plot device of the game-changing accident - the mistaken letter in "Atonement," the balloon incident in "Enduring Love", the polar bear rug accident in this book- plays well in comedy. His dialogue is amusing, and there are numerous well-honed and sparkling set pieces, though one of these is lifted (albeit with attribution) from Douglas Adams and another recycles the real life experience of Larry Summers' fatal transgression against feminist correctness. There is wonderful satire, too, of environmentalist luvvies, postmodern critics and American fast food culture among other targets.

The novel's two flaws - which do not render it at all unreadable - are its episodic structure, for the three parts do not fit together seamlessly, and its central protagonist. Beard is not likeable and he is not credible. He is unconvincing as a Nobel laureate, lacking the strength of intellect, character or presence that one would expect. Nor is he compelling as a womanizer - unless Dr K was mistaken and the ultimate aphrodisiac was not his power but his gong. Beard comes from the same cast as some of the characters in Updike, Roth, Amis Père, even Tom Sharpe. Above all, he made me think of David Lodge. Lodge would have created a Beard who was more appealing and more self-insightful. Indeed, I suspect Lodge could have written this novel better than McEwan.
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 29 Mar 2010 10:01:11 BDT
Trevor says:
Does the central character have to be likeable? Are all Nobel Laureates saints?
I like him: 5 successful marriages, a string of erotic conquests and still finding pleasure in his trysts relatively late in his libidinous life...good on him.
The final scene involving his reunion with his daughter, coupled with his melanoma issue is utterly poignant.

Posted on 29 Mar 2010 14:45:45 BDT
HelenB says:
David Lodge! Yes, of course. I knew Beard reminded me of some other author's characters.

Posted on 31 Mar 2010 10:14:49 BDT
"The epigraph also gives us a clue that Beard's chronic inability to control his appetites stands as a metaphor for humanity's inability to make short term sacrifices for the longer term good"
Spot on!

Posted on 8 May 2010 15:46:26 BDT
Yes, I'm with you on this. Beard is a methaphor for the human condition. The inability of mankind to control its insatiable appetite to consume, even in the face of hard evidence. Beard's decision to ignore the melanoma underlines this. But I'm wondering whether we are meant to take Beard literally. Is he meant to be a kind of humanised version of science itself - something that is driven entirely and only by logic - that is by definition selfish. In the very last sentence Beard's heart is tugged by his daughter running towards him and he experiences, for the first time he wonders, love?

Posted on 8 May 2010 15:48:07 BDT
[Deleted by the author on 8 May 2010 15:48:32 BDT]
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