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Customer Review

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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