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Solar Hardcover – Deckle Edge, March 30, 2010
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Critics expressed decidedly mixed opinions about McEwan's latest work--and perhaps it's no surprise that he was better-reviewed on his UK home front. While most critics on either side of the pond praised the author's intelligent plot (especially his command of science) and ample storytelling gifts, the majority agreed that Solar is not his best novel to date. A few commented that the several narrative strands, which take place over more than a decade, do not cohere; Beard's jaunt to the North Pole, for example is interesting but tangential. Tired jokes, a rushed climax, and Beard's own piggish character felt claustrophobic to others. But most contentious of all was the satirical, comic tone superimposed on the very serious subject of climate change. Though Solar is a worthy inquiry into truth, morality, and the future of humanity, some critics could not get past McEwan's approach.
Customarily, McEwan’s novels spring from a catastrophic incident in someone’s life, either a calamity that causes physical distress or a psychological trespass that causes emotional instability. For instance, in Enduring Love (1998), a man plunges to his death from a balloon, and in the aftermath, one witness continues to menace another witness. On Chesil Beach (2007) centers on an emotionally devastating wedding night. In his new novel, McEwan outdoes himself in terms of catastrophic occurrences. The protagonist, physicist Michael Beard, won a Nobel Prize several years ago and has been resting on his laurels ever since. A serial cheater, he is now married to his fifth wife, who leads a totally separate life, indicating her complete disdain for his wandering eye. His lack of effort in applying himself to either career or fidelity only increases our dislike of him. Even he says of himself, “No one loved him.” An accidental death in which he was involved and which he covered up, a politically incorrect statement aired before a professional audience, and his usurpation of the research of a deceased colleague: readers are taxed to even care about these crises. This draggy novel stands in stark contrast to its many beautiful predecessors, but McEwan is regarded as a major contemporary British novelist, so expect demand on that basis. --Brad Hooper
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As a strong prose stylist, McEwan's books are always interesting to read and there are well-done features to this story. In it, he shows his facility with modern science and its impact on social problems, something he's done in previous books as well. This time around, the subject is global warming. Wisely, he stays away from taking a specific stance on the issue even as Michael Beard, his Nobel prize-winning physicist lead character, takes a "lucky" opportunity to explore the issue in his work, thereby putting it before the reading in a subtle way.
On the other hand, this book suffers from two features also present in some of his previous novels, but not to the extent that they impact the story as negatively as they do here. The first is a plot point. Like many excellent novelists, McEwan's novels often turn on a strange event or an odd, coincidental encounter. Sometimes this works very well--I am thinking of Briony's lie in Atonement, for example. Sometimes this works less well, as in the break-in that nearly ruins the last quarter of his otherwise excellent book, Saturday. (Spoiler alert-->) Here, we have an accidental death that for reasons I still don't quite understand or believe, Beard disguises as a murder. Unfortunately, this happens rather early in the story, is important for everything that follows, and, therefore, decreases whatever enjoyment can be found in the rest of the book.
The second problem is something that bothers me personally, but may be less important to other readers. I do not like books where there is, essentially, not a single likeable character with hardly even a redeeming quality. Michael Beard, for example, is almost completely pathetic--a Nobel prize-winner living off his laurels, guilty of intellectual theft, a serial divorcer, a serial adulterer, an absent father, obese, slovenly...Just an all-around poor specimen of a human being. As Beard is the overwhelming personality in this novel, it is rough going, but even the minor characters--mean-spirited ex-wives, abusive boyfriend of ex-wife, pathetic girlfriends, abandoned daughter, grasping colleagues--there's barely a thing to like about the bunch. These are not people with whom I want to spend my time.
Which is too bad, because McEwan's talent is immense. Even with my disappointments, I had no trouble making it to the end of the book. I am hoping, however, he reins in some of his impulses next time around for a tighter, more pleasurable experience.
Nothing wrong with that as a storyline but it just doesn't hold together. There are really good parts (after all McEwan can do set pieces as well as anyone) such as the section on when Beard met his first wife. This bit was excerpted in The New Yorker. About ten or so first rate pages and there are other really good parts but overall not compelling. I just wanted Beard to get run over by a bus after about page 8.
The physics was muddled (I have a PhD and know this stuff) while the descriptions of parts of academic life (I am a prof and know about this as well) are reasonably accurate (see Goldstein's Intuition for the best recent description of life in a modern lab).
I have a very high opinion many of McEwan's prior works (Atonement, Amsterdam, The Innocent, Black Dogs...) but can't recommend this one.
In classic McEwen style there is a pivot incident that changes or enhances the trajectory of Beard's life. The ensuing tragedy begets a kind of second life for him personally and publicaly. There are funny scenes in the book but no belly laughs. They're more of a one side of the mouth raised and a strangled guffaw type. Honestly this guy is so pathetic you want to jump into the book and drag him to safety, along with some of his hapless `victims'.
This wasn't one of my favorite McEwen novels but I still loved it. Especially wonderful was his description of southwest America. This is where his wry sense of humor really goes hot. The heat of this lonely area with its orange sunsets, the contrasts between the hyper cooled indoors and the stalking blanket of heat outside, the people who are at once expansive in their open hearts and provincial in their viewpoints. When you think of someone who's reached such a level as Beard's character there's a certain perception or expectation of sophistication and maturity. Beard defies such characterization. Toto's pulled the curtain away, by the end Beard is standing naked with a spotlight on him.