Excerpt from Solar by Ian McEwan, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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by Ian McEwan

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  • First Published:
    Mar 2010, 304 pages
    Mar 2011, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl

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Print Excerpt

He needed to cease needing her, but desire was not like that. He wanted to want her. One sultry night he lay uncovered on the bed and tried masturbating himself toward freedom. It bothered him that he could not see his genitalia unless his head was propped up on two pil­lows, and his fantasy was continually interrupted by Tarpin, who, like some ignorant stagehand with ladder and bucket, kept wandering onto the set. Was there another man on the planet apart from Beard attempting at this moment to pleasure himself with thoughts of his own wife just thirty feet away across the landing? The question emp­tied him of purpose. And it was too hot.

Friends used to tell him that Patrice resembled Marilyn Monroe, at least from certain angles and in a certain light. He had been happy to accept this status-enhancing comparison, but he never really saw it. Now he did. She had changed. There was a new fullness in her lower lip, a promise of trouble when she lowered her gaze, and her shortened hair lay curled on her nape in a compelling, old-fashioned way. Surely she was more beautiful than Monroe, drifting about the house and garden at weekends in a haze of blond and pink and pale blue. What an adolescent color scheme he had fallen for, and at his age.

He turned  fifty-three that July, and naturally she ignored his birthday, then pretended in her jolly new style to remember it three days later. She gave him a kipper tie in  Day-Glo mint green, telling him the style was being “revived.” Yes, the weekends were the worst. She would come into a room where he was, not wishing to talk, but perhaps wanting to be seen, and she would look about in mild sur­prise before wandering off. She was evaluating everything afresh, not only him. He would see her at the bottom of the garden under the horse chestnut, lying on the grass with the newspapers, waiting in deep shade for her evening to begin. Then she would retire to the guest room to shower, dress, apply makeup and scent. As if reading his thoughts, she was wearing her lipstick red and thick. Perhaps Rodney Tarpin was encouraging the Monroe notion—a cliché Beard was now obliged to share.

If he was still in the house when she left (he tried so hard to keep busy at night), he found it irresistible to ameliorate his longing and pain by observing her from an upstairs window as she stepped into the evening air of Belsize Park and walked up the garden path—how disloyal of the unoiled garden gate to squeak in the same old way— and climbed into her car, a small and flighty black Peugeot of wanton acceleration. She was so eager, gunning the engine as she pulled away from the curb, that his douleur redoubled, because he knew she knew he was watching. Then her absence hung in the summer dusk like garden bonfire smoke, an erotic charge of invisible particulates that caused him to remain in position for many pointless minutes. He was not actually mad, he kept telling himself, but he thought he was get­ting a taste, a bitter sip.

What impressed him was his ability to think of nothing else. When he was reading a book, when he was giving a talk, he was really thinking of her, or of her and Tarpin. It was a bad idea to be at home when she was out seeing him, but since Lisbon he had no desire to look up old girlfriends. Instead he took on a series of evening lectures about quantum field theory at the Royal Geographical Society, joined radio and TV discussions, and at occasional events filled in for colleagues who were ill. Let the philosophers of science delude them­selves to the contrary, physics was free of human taint; it described a world that would still exist if men and women and all their sorrows did not. In this conviction he was at one with Albert Einstein.

But even if he ate late with friends, he was usually home before her, and was forced to wait, whether he wanted to or not, until she returned, though nothing would happen when she did. She would go straight to her room, and he would remain in his, not wanting to meet her on the stairs in her state of postcoital somnolence. It was almost better when she stayed over at Tarpin’s. Almost, but it would cost him a night’s sleep.

Excerpted from Solar by Ian McEwan Copyright © 2010 by Ian McEwan. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher

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