Summary and book reviews of Solar by Ian McEwan

Solar

By Ian McEwan

Solar
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  • Hardcover: Mar 2010,
    304 pages.
    Paperback: Mar 2011,
    368 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl

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About this Book

Book Summary

Michael Beard is a Nobel prize–winning physicist whose best work is behind him. Trading on his reputation, he speaks for enormous fees, lends his name to the letterheads of renowned scientific institutions, and half-heartedly heads a government-backed initiative tackling global warming. While he coasts along in his professional life, Michael’s personal life is another matter entirely. His fifth marriage is crumbling under the weight of his infidelities. But this time the tables are turned: His wife is having an affair, and Michael realizes he is still in love with her.

When Michael’s personal and professional lives begin to intersect in unexpected ways, an opportunity presents itself in the guise of an invitation to travel to New Mexico. Here is a chance for him to extricate himself from his marital problems, reinvigorate his career, and very possibly save the world from environmental disaster. Can a man who has made a mess of his life clean up the messes of humanity?

A complex novel that brilliantly traces the arc of one man’s ambitions and self-deceptions, Solar is a startling, witty, and stylish new work from one of the world’s great writers.

Excerpt
Solar

He belonged to that class of men—vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever—who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women. Or he believed he was, and thinking seemed to make it so. And it helped that some women believed he was a genius in need of rescue. But the Michael Beard of this time was a man of narrowed mental condition, anhedonic, monothematic, stricken. His fifth marriage was disintegrating, and he should have known how to behave, how to take the long view, how to take the blame. Weren’t marriages, his marriages, tidal, with one rolling out just before another rolled in? But this one was different. He did not know how to behave, long views pained him, and for once there was no blame for him to assume, as he saw it. It was his wife who was hav­ing the affair, and having it flagrantly, punitively, certainly without remorse. He was discovering in himself, among an array of emo­tions, intense moments of shame and ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Guide
The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group's discussion of Solar, the new novel by Ian McEwan, Booker Prize winner and bestselling author of Amsterdam and Atonement.

About This Book

Solar approaches the largest and most important of themes—global warming—through the very particular lens of Michael Beard, a disheveled physicist floundering in the aftermath of a career that had brought him the Nobel Prize many years before.

As the novel begins, Beard's fifth marriage is unraveling. But this time, in a reversal of roles, it is because his wife is having an affair. Infidelities are Beard's stock-in-trade, ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

... Ironic, too, is the way in which Beard is able to speak about science. The passages in which McEwan quotes large segments of his informational and motivational speeches are brilliantly crafted pieces of popular science writing, Beard's knowledge of and apparent passion for his chosen field shine through every word, inspiring both Beard's audiences and McEwan's readers. But the narcissistic, short-sighted internal monologues that compose much of the rest of the novel call into question not only Beard's motivations but also the reader's sympathies. McEwan asks readers to perform a difficult task: to respect a character's work even if we might not respect the man behind it.   (Reviewed by Norah Piehl).

Full Review Members Only (922 words).

Media Reviews
New York Times - Michiko Kakutani

While recounting Beard’s story, Mr. McEwan gives the reader some uproarious moments... The last two thirds of this novel, however, are oddly static, as Mr. McEwan repetitiously harps on Beard’s gluttonous habits and growing waistline....

Publishers Weekly

The scientific material is absorbing, but the interpersonal portions are much less so - troublesome, since McEwan seems to prefer the latter - making for an inconsistent novel that one finishes feeling unpleasantly glacial.

Booklist

This draggy novel stands in stark contrast to its many beautiful predecessors.

Library Journal

Overall, this is dense with the minutiae of global warming and alternative energy, and the denouement, however pleasing, seems rather clumsy, given the 100-odd pages preceding it.

Time

McEwan's background research is so seamlessly displayed that scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — busy working on the same topic — might wonder if he's nicked their notes. But where Solar really succeeds - beyond the dark comedy. . .- is the author's ability to reveal the nature of the climate conundrum in the very human life of his protagonist.

The Spectator

Beard is as robust and full-fleshed and ebullient a character as McEwan has come up with. And in Solar, he shows a side to himself as a writer — a puckishness, a broadness of humour, an extravagance of style — that we haven’t seen before.

The Telegraph (UK)

[M]y only reservation about the novel is that the end is a bit of a jolt, the brakes are applied rather forcefully. But perhaps this is because McEwan is planning Solar II. I hope so because I rather like Michael Beard.

The Times (UK)

[S]izzling lucidity distinguishes this enormously entertaining novel about rationality and unreason.

Financial Times (UK)

It seems unlikely that McEwan could pull this off but there is no doubt that he has. Solar is both funny and serious, light and dark, morally engaged and ironically detached, and well deserves its place next to the great run of sparkling fiction that began with Enduring Love (1997).

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Artificial Photosynthesis

Much of the science upon which Beard stakes his reputation (even though he may have gleaned it unethically) deals with the concept of artificial photosynthesis, a real proposed solution to energy consumption problems, one that Beard himself explains eloquently and convincingly in a speech to a group of businesspeople and investors. When he first encounters the idea, Beard calls it "brilliant or insane," but regardless of his ambivalence, artificial photosynthesis is a proposal that is very much under discussion as one of the potential answers to the mounting questions about where humans will draw their energy in years to come.

Essentially, artificial photosynthesis does what plants have been doing for the last 2.8 billion years or...

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