Reviews of Lessons by Ian McEwan


A novel

by Ian McEwan

Lessons by Ian McEwan X
Lessons by Ian McEwan
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Sep 2022, 448 pages

    Aug 8, 2023, 512 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Jacob Lenz-Avila
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About this Book

Book Summary

From the best-selling author of Atonement and Saturday comes the epic and intimate story of one man's life across generations and historical upheavals. From the Suez Crisis to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the fall of the Berlin Wall to the current pandemic, Roland Baines sometimes rides with the tide of history, but more often struggles against it.

When the world is still counting the cost of the Second World War and the Iron Curtain has closed, eleven-year-old Roland Baines's life is turned upside down. Two thousand miles from his mother's protective love, stranded at an unusual boarding school, his vulnerability attracts piano teacher Miss Miriam Cornell, leaving scars as well as a memory of love that will never fade.

Now, when his wife vanishes, leaving him alone with his tiny son, Roland is forced to confront the reality of his restless existence. As the radiation from Chernobyl spreads across Europe, he begins a search for answers that looks deep into his family history and will last for the rest of his life.

Haunted by lost opportunities, Roland seeks solace through every possible means—music, literature, friends, sex, politics, and, finally, love cut tragically short, then love ultimately redeemed. His journey raises important questions for us all. Can we take full charge of the course of our lives without causing damage to others? How do global events beyond our control shape our lives and our memories? And what can we really learn from the traumas of the past?

Epic, mesmerizing, and deeply humane, Lessons is a chronicle for our times—a powerful meditation on history and humanity through the prism of one man's lifetime.


This was insomniac memory, not a dream. It was the piano lesson again—an orange-tiled floor, one high window, a new upright in a bare room close to the sickbay. He was eleven years old, attempting what others might know as Bach's first prelude from Book One of The Well-tempered Clavier, simplified version, but he knew nothing of that. He didn't wonder whether it was famous or obscure. It had no when or where. He could not conceive that someone had once troubled to write it. The music was simply here, a school thing, or dark, like a pine forest in winter, exclusive to him, his private labyrinth of cold sorrow. It would never let him leave.

The teacher sat close by him on the long stool. Round-faced, erect, perfumed, strict. Her beauty lay concealed behind her manner. She never scowled or smiled. Some boys said she was mad, but he doubted that.

He made a mistake in the same place, the one he always made, and she leaned closer to show him. Her arm was firm and warm against his ...

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Lessons shines at disrupting hoary old concepts like good guys and bad guys, clear motivations and closure by tweaking well-trodden themes. Perhaps inevitably, the plot's artful setup, with all its neat foreshadowing and synchronicities guaranteeing a juicy outcome, its trotting out of historical upheavals through yet another fictional character's lens, can feel a tad by-the-numbers. Sometimes you can almost glimpse the novelist consulting his outline and research to make sure no poetic connection goes unconnected. But for the book's spectacular chemical reactions to occur, some basic elements have to be methodically poured into the mix. While Lessons puts plot, characters and ideas first, its prose style is routinely insightful and enticing: "Long drives usually settled him into sustained reflection… His little car, nimbler and more spacious than he expected, was a thought-bubble pushing north through a country he no longer quite knew or understood."..continued

Full Review (916 words).

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(Reviewed by Jacob Lenz-Avila).

Media Reviews

Associated Press
Masterful ... McEwan is a storyteller at the peak of his powers and this deserves to be near the top of the 'best books of 2022' list. One of the joys of the novel is the way it weaves history into Roland's biography as well as the lives of other characters in the book.

The Boston Globe
Generous, ambitious ... a masterpiece of modulation among pathos, fury, and affection.

USA Today
Brilliant ... a beguiling and irresistible read ... A masterpiece of a novel that is simultaneously about the business of growing up and getting old, and the business of writing fiction.

A luminous, beautifully written, and gripping book about lives imperfectly lived. McEwan's new novel is ranging, ambitious, teasingly autobiographical, and unsettling in the manner of his best work, a story of monstrous behavior set against major tides of the last 80 years. Roland Baines, a kind of spectator to history, is our hero [and] is both haunted by trauma and able to push away from it, toward love, parenthood, forgiveness, grace.

Wall Street Journal
[Lessons] is quietly touching, as is Mr. McEwan's decision to cede his habitual narrative control to more naturalistic forces. Lessons is more formless than previous books ... It is also wiser and closer to the bone.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Richly observed...A tale of aspiration, disappointment, and familial dysfunction spread across a vast historic panorama...McEwan's imagination delivers plenty of family secrets and reflects on 'so many lessons unlearned' in a world that's clearly wobbling off its axis.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
McEwan returns with his best work since the Booker- and NBCC-winning Atonement, a sprawling narrative that stretches from the commencement of the Cold War to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic...McEwan poignantly shows how the characters contend with major historical moments while dealing with the ravages of daily life, which is what makes this so affecting. He also employs lyrical but pared-down prose to great effect...Once more, the masterly McEwan delights.

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Beyond the Book

White Rose

White Rose Public Memorial: Display of leaflets fanned out on ground with bouquet of white flowers on top In Ian McEwan's Lessons, Roland Baines, a member of the English baby boomer generation, who "as they turned adult" began "to wonder at the dangers they never had to face," contrasts his own achievements disparagingly with his German father-in-law's association with the White Rose anti-Nazi movement during World War II. This nonviolent resistance group was formed in Munich in 1942 and consisted mainly of students, including siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl, Willi Graf and Alexander Schmorell.

As Heinrich, Roland's father-in-law, insists, not wanting to be misrepresented by those who prefer their heroic legends simple and clean, there were other scattered efforts to resist National Socialism. Yet those who refused to comply with the ...

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