Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Solar" by Ian McEwan. Writing = 5 stars; story/main character = 1-2 stars. I didn't like it.

I never expected to dislike a book that has such wonderful writing; it makes writing this review very difficult. The short answer is that I loved the writing and didn‘t like the story and the main character. If the plot had matched the quality of the writing, I’d give the book 5 stars and if the writing had matched the plot, I’d give it 1-2 stars. So I’m splitting the difference and giving it a 3. If you are not already a serious fan of the author, this is not the book to start on. Ardent fans of McEwan should be aware that this book may test the limits of your loyalty to his work, depending on how you feel about the plot and the main character. If you like the plot, you will probably love this book and if you are a big fan of Ian McEwan, you may at least enjoy it more than I did. I’ll let you know what I hated about the story and you can decide if this is the book for you.

Writing: On the positive side, Ian McEwan writes lovely prose. Even though I hated the story, I often had to stop and savor particularly exquisite passages of writing. For some people this will be enough. For me it was not.

Story/Character: The main reason I didn’t like the story is that I really didn’t like the main character. Michael Beard has few, if any, redeeming characteristics. At the beginning of the book his fifth marriage is falling apart. His wife is openly cheating on him and has moved into a separate bedroom. The reader can’t feel sorry for Beard because he has cheated on all his wives, including the present one:  he had 11 affairs during their four-year marriage.

In addition to being serially unfaithful, Beard is lazy and resting on his professional laurels. He won the Nobel Prize years (decades) ago and coasts from one figurehead appointment to another without doing any actual work. His only new work, on solar energy, is not even original. He steals ideas he once ignored from a younger scientist. Lastly, Beard is a glutton. Reading about his excess eating can make a reader nauseous. I wondered if McEwan was trying to make a political statement by having Beard, with his gluttony and self-centeredness, represent contemporary industrialized society’s consumption of fossil fuels.

The professional reviews have commented on the comedic or farcical element of the book but I didn’t find it particularly humorous. It is mildly amusing when Beard gives a speech that is virtually all plagiarized material but he is accused of borrowing from urban legend the only true things he said. And I experienced schadenfreude when Beard’s misbehaving “member” gets frozen to his zipper in the Arctic during an ill-advised pit stop and he thinks it has frozen and snapped off.

I have read that some authors think that it is a good thing when readers hate a character because they have made you feel something. What it made me feel is that I would have put the book down and stopped reading it if I hadn’t received it specifically for the purpose of writing a review. All in all, I was really glad when I finished the book and will wait for reviews before deciding whether or not to read the author’s next one.

I received this book free from Amazon Vine for purposes of writing a review.

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