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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Ian McEwan

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To purchase Solar

Title: Solar
Author: Ian McEwan
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010
Length: 285 pages
Availability: Solar - US
Solar - UK
Solar - Canada
Solar - India
Solaire - France
Solar - Deutschland
Solar - Italia
Solar - España

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Our Assessment:

B- : a flabby character-portrait

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Australian C- 20/3/2010 Geordie Williamson
Bookforum . 4-5/2010 Benjamin Anastas
The Economist . 11/3/2010 .
Entertainment Weekly B+ 24/3/2010 Jeff Giles
Financial Times A 5/3/2010 William Sutcliffe
The Guardian . 13/3/2010 Christopher Tayler
The Harvard Crimson . 23/2/2010 Eric M. Sefton
Independent on Sunday . 14/3/2010 James Urquhart
London Rev. of Books . 25/3/2010 Thomas Jones
The LA Times . 28/3/2010 Taylor Antrim
New Statesman . 19/3/2010 Leo Robson
The NY Rev. of Books . 13/5/2010 Michael Wood
The NY Times B- 30/3/2010 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. C- 18/4/2010 Walter Kirn
Newsweek . 29/3/2010 Jennie Yabroff
The Observer . 14/3/2010 Jason Cowley
Publishers Weekly . 1/2/2010 .
San Francisco Chronicle . 26/3/2010 Geoff Nicholson
The Spectator . 10/3/2010 Sam Leith
Sunday Times A+ 7/3/2010 Peter Kemp
The Telegraph . 7/3/2010 Tibor Fischer
The Telegraph A 13/3/2010 Lorna Bradbury
Time . 5/4/2010 Bryan Walsh
The Times . 13/3/2010 Ruth Scurr
TLS . 24/3/2010 M.John Harrison
USA Today . 29/3/2010 Deirdre Donahue
Wall St. Journal . 26/3/2010 Paul Levy
The Washington Post . 31/3/2010 Ron Charles

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, but many find it very enjoyable -- and funny

  From the Reviews:
  • "An odd, desultory production, by turns pompous and feebly comic, Solar is McEwan's weakest novel since Amsterdam in 1998: an object-lesson in how impotent literature can be in the face of real-world challenges. (...) The final effect is ruinous. (...) McEwan's wit lacks the necessary bite." - Geordie Williamson, The Australian

  • "McEwan is the beloved veterinarian who keeps a Deepfreeze in his basement stuffed with deer parts and squirrel carcasses, the EMT who dreams of turning every patient into a CPR dummy with the power of his touch. In Solar -- just as in 2006's plodding, oddly lifeless Saturday -- the historical markers are all in place (Bush v. Gore, Iraq, Obama's election), and the science and technology are up to the minute and sufficiently digested for a lay reader to feel edified. And the plot brings the fatuous Beard to a reckoning foreseeable enough to seem inevitable and just preposterous enough to remind us that McEwan, acting as his story's controlling, mortal God, has been behind it from the start." - Benjamin Anastas, Bookforum

  • "There are several things to be said about Mr McEwan’s latest work. The first is that it is a comedy, which is a surprise, given the darkness of some of his writing in the past; the second is that it is not very good. (...) Overall, the plot is barely credible and the scientific setting hard to recognise. A novel to chuckle over, and chuck away." - The Economist

  • "The plot of Solar -- a jerk builds such a tower of lies that it seems certain to fall on him -- is not the cleverest thing McEwan has ever dreamed up. But it's a surprising book in other ways. Decades ago, McEwan wrote about the violence we do to others. Solar is about the violence we do to ourselves." - Jeff Giles, Entertainment Weekly

  • "On settling down to read Solar, two striking features of the novel are immediately apparent. First, that it is a stunningly accomplished work, possibly his best yet; and second, that the book does contain a truly shocking surprise -- not that it deals with climate change, but that it is a comedy. (...) 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" - William Sutcliffe, Financial Times

  • "Lightness, however, comes less easily to McEwan, whose style depends on deliberateness and a certain ponderousness. The ominous lining up of causes and effects and the patient tweaking of narrative tension don't always mesh well with the aimed-for quickness and brio. (...) At the same time, the overarching plot pulls off a clinching novelistic coup, using comedy to sneak grimmer matters past the reader's defences." - Christopher Tayler, The Guardian

  • "The environment of Solar is populated with miserable individuals who enjoy employment without understanding their purpose, and who embrace causes unprepared and unable to make a difference. Through Beard, McEwan hints that satisfaction is derived from the daily accomplishment of one’s own goals, rather than a perpetual search for a better future. But while living in the moment might allow for immediate happiness, it prevents the reflection necessary for addressing problems of the future, whether that problem is global warming or finding a companion in life." - Eric M. Sefton, The Harvard Crimson

  • "Beard could have been the richly flawed character that would carry Solar. However, despite the many ponderous ruminations on his own sensual and moral weaknesses, his smug lack of any humility or self-reproach gives the reader little purchase for any enduring interest. (...) Forgive the pun, but Solar is purely light entertainment -- no bad thing in itself but lacking the scope and tenacity that one might expect from McEwan." - James Urquhart, Independent on Sunday

  • "McEwan’s new novel, Solar, unlike any of his previous work, is avowedly comic. And much of it is extremely funny, most of the time on purpose (.....) The elements of farce in Solar have the unintended side-effect of pointing up how farcical many of the events in McEwan’s previous, more serious novels are" - Thomas Jones, London Review of Books

  • "Alas, a rushed and contrived climax mars the novel's last pages. What a surprise to see plot ace McEwan struggle to integrate his several narrative strands, stage a persuasive finale and go home. The happier surprise and the reason why Solar succeeds in spite of its creaky finish is McEwan's sense of humor." - Taylor Antrim, The Los Angeles Times

  • "As in Amsterdam, McEwan is confident in his handling of plot -- a farce works in much the same way as a tragedy or a thriller -- but he struggles with comic set pieces and characters. He is a subtle, quick-nibbed writer, but broad comedy works by overstatement. (...) With Solar, McEwan has finally committed the folly that we might not have expected from him." - Leo Robson, New Statesman

  • "There are moments in Solar when the pace slows almost to a standstill. (...) But generally, even the slowness works in the novel’s favor. There is a patient precision in the language" - Michael Wood, The New York Review of Books

  • "Like Amsterdam, this latest book shows off his gifts as a satirist, but while it gets off to a rollicking start, its plot machinery soon starts to run out of gas, sputtering and stalling as it makes its way from one comic set piece to another. (...) The last two thirds of this novel, however, are oddly static (.....) As for the book’s final scenes, in which all of Beard’s earlier lies, betrayals and schemes come sliding down together in a gigantic avalanche, they feel oddly perfunctory and rushed: an unsatisfying ending to what is ultimately one of the immensely talented Mr. McEwan’s decidedly lesser efforts." - The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani

  • "(A) book so good -- so ingeniously designed, irreproachably high-minded and skillfully brought off -- that it’s actually quite bad. Instead of being awful yet absorbing, it’s impeccable yet numbing, achieving the sort of superbly wrought inertia of a Romanesque cathedral. There’s so little wrong with it that there’s nothing particularly right about it, either. It’s impressive to behold but something of a virtuous pain to read. (...) What makes “Solar” such a noble nullity is that it answers these challenges so easily, with such a quotient of stress-free mastery that they feel less like challenges than like problems in a literary exam the author has devised as a means of proving his own prowess." - Walter Kirn, The New York Times Book Review

  • "To be clear, Solar is not a standard whodunit. It's a book of many interesting ideas, but perhaps its most intriguing quality is the way it subverts the reader's assumption that no crime can go unpunished, that justice must be served." - Jennie Yabroff, Newsweek

  • "What is absent from Solar, ultimately, are other minds, the sense that people other than Beard are present, equally alive, with something to contribute. Without them, after a while, it feels as if you are locked inside an echo chamber, listening only to the reverberations of the one same sound -- the groan of a fat, selfish man in late middle age eating himself." - Jason Cowley, The Observer

  • "Beard is a fascinatingly repulsive protagonist, but he can't sustain a novel broken up by fast-forwards (all of which require tedious backstories) and a stream of overwritten courtships. 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." - Publishers Weekly

  • "One of McEwan's greatest gifts as a novelist is to make the reader fear impending doom. We know that disaster is never far away, and yet when it arrives, it's still a surprise, never precisely the disaster we were expecting. Since this is a novel, and a comedy, and to a degree a satire, of course Beard's plans won't work out the way he wants them to. McEwan's own sense of morality may be far more nuanced than his hero's, but ultimately it's just as cynical. (...) The book isn't a dud, but by McEwan's high standards it does seem a bit of a misfire. Satirists always have to be moralists at some level, but the moral dilemmas that occur in Solar never seem quite real or urgent enough." - Geoff Nicholson, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Here, in a book around a scientific theme of considerable seriousness -- global warming and renewable energy -- McEwan has written the closest thing he’s ever done to a farce. (...) It’s very larky. Very larky. (...) The larkiness sometimes causes a grinding of gears, too: the novel’s satiric ambitions don’t always fit perfectly with its slapstick side. But it’s wonderfully enjoyable to read McEwan in this mode" - Sam Leith, The Spectator

  • "Often a source of comedy, Beard simultaneously emerges as a podgy emblem of instincts that have brought our species to its present hazardous pass.(...) Right up to its final moment -- teasingly poised between the heart-warming and heart-stopping as nemesis arrives for Beard -- scarcely a page fails to dazzle with some wittily caught perception about contemporary life. Blazing with imaginative and intellectual energy, Solar is a stellar performance." - Peter Kemp, Sunday Times

  • "Solar is chiefly a mash-up of the Hampstead adultery novel and a conflation of the Bradbury/Lodge academic satire, with the merest dash of politics (George W, New Labour spin), and a side order of the trusty McEwan standby of violence. (...) The denouement of Solar in sunny New Mexico is not predictable but is predictably bleak, and my only reservation about the novel is that the end is a bit of a jolt, the brakes are applied rather forcefully." - Tibor Fischer, The Telegraph

  • "Michael Beard is a comic creation in the same class as Martin Amis’s John Self. Indeed, if Money could be seen as the high point of Amis’s career, summing up the excesses of the Eighties, so Solar is likely to come to be regarded as the equivalent for McEwan. For this novel takes on the political obsession of our age -- climate change -- and fashions out of it a satirical masterpiece. (...) Solar can, at times, seem loose, structured through a series of anecdotes and diversions about Beard’s life. It is only quite far in that it becomes clear just how well plotted and rigorous it is." - Lorna Bradbury, The Telegraph

  • "(W)here Solar really succeeds -- beyond the dark comedy, too long missing in McEwan's gentler recent work -- is the author's ability to reveal the nature of the climate conundrum in the very human life of his protagonist." - Bryan Walsh, Time

  • "Solar, like its protagonist, is vivacious and sprawling, a beautifully and compellingly written novel but without the taut narrative drive that readers of Atonement or On Chesil Beach will remember. McEwan’s construction of thriller-like suspenseful plots, his depiction of dramatic events that determine the direction of an entire life, are absent here. The passage of time, previously so consequential, seems almost irrelevant in Solar." - Ruth Scurr, The Times

  • "These streams of narrative matter collide with, complicate and confirm one another in satirical space. Where they clump, visibly symbolic hotspots form. (...) The reader soon begins to yearn for bodywork, modesty, something -- anything -- to cover the hot allegorical engine of the book. (...) Beard’s only excuse for himself -- and the only excuse for writing about him -- is the science. Solar has an engagingly direct, bleakly comic view of science and scientists." - M.John Harrison, Times Literary Supplement

  • "McEwan displays his extraordinary gift for writing. But the truth is, the novelist David Lodge (Changing Places) does academics gone wild with far more fun, zest and originality. (...) Yes, McEwan (Atonement, Saturday) writes great novels -- but this solar-powered sex n' science mash-up isn't one." - Deirdre Donahue, USA Today

  • "In Solar he's elegantly discovered a terrible truth: that comedy is the only possible way for an artist to deal with the searing specter stalking the planet." - Paul Levy, Wall Street Journal

  • "Solar remains focused myopically on Beard, the self-pitying snob who grows more corpulent while all the other characters remain thin and faint. What's worse, the plot seems allergic to itself, constantly arresting its own progress with not terribly pertinent flashbacks or abrupt jumps forward." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Ian McEwan's Solar is a three-part novel, its very central character the physicist Michael Beard. A Nobel laureate -- awarded the prize for his work on the Beard-Einstein Conflation ("There's nothing like the Conflation, nothing like this elaboration of the photovoltaics -- nothing more elegant, nothing truer", an acolyte enthuses) --, Beard is, at age fifty-three, pretty much over the hill in the opening section of the novel, set in 2000. He used to be a scientist; now he is simply a bureaucrat. The frisson of science and scientific discovery -- it's: "All gone now." He dabbles in a variety of things -- he's: "always on the look-out for an official role with a stipend attached" --, but isn't kept very busy, even as head of the new British National Centre for Renewable Energy.
       Beard has gone through several wives, and in 2000 is married to the beautiful and considerably younger Patrice. Unfortunately, Beard can't leave his womanizing ways behind him and continues to sleep around, managing eleven affairs over the course of the five years of their marriage; now Patrice has taken up with a lover too. (Beard's need to latch onto other women is a constant in the novel, as he's never satisfied with what he has, but his body's decline over the years makes the pickings leaner (with the Nobel-aura only helping so much); the second and third sections of the novel are set in 2005 and 2009 respectively, and by the end he's hooked up with one who turns out to be a real prize .....) His wife's infidelity troubles him greatly, but, of course, he's not exactly occupying the moral high ground.
       It takes a while before McEwan reveals parts of Beard's past, from his family-life (mom also racked up quite a few lovers) to his first marriage, but most of the novel deals with the present (or the three presents, the stages in Beard's life of 2000, 2005, and 2009). While McEwan carefully builds up his character-portrait, presenting Beard as is, a relatively unpleasant man, a mix of pompous certainty (with that Nobel stamp of approval justifying an awful lot) and many all-too-human insecurities. The book begins rather deliberately (if not outright slowly), with mundane and only moderately interesting matters: Beard's rickety marriage, his work (insofar one can call what he does at the Centre work).
       McEwan surprises with a rather neat set of plot twists -- yet these do not upend the story (or Beard). Beard maintains what seems like control: he changes the reality of what happened (effectively killing two birds with one stone, as it were), allowing his life to continue much as before. One character pays a very high cost for Beard's interference, but Beard can live with that -- the punishment in that case doesn't quite fit the actual crime (he merely wronged Beard, and did wrong by Patrice, too), but he's an unpleasant character who certainly has worse in him.
       As a consequence of these events, Beard is left with the research conducted by one of the younger scientists at the Centre; he appropriates it, and makes it his own. Always greedy -- "All Beard asked, beyond a reasonable return, was sole attribution" -- Beard certainly expects and demands too much; it comes as no surprise that eventually he'll get his comeuppance.
       It builds up for a while, however. By 2005 things are not going smoothly, but at least:

     At last he had a mission, it was consuming him, and he was running out of time.
       The work Beard dedicates himself to is certainly worthy: a cheap source of energy, in the form of artificial photosynthesis. The start-up he builds up promises great success, but hasn't delivered yet: a big show at the New Mexico site in 2009 is meant to be the grand unveiling -- and bring with it a flood of money. Shortly before the big event Beard's main backer is worried that maybe those global warning doubters are right after all -- and: "If the place isn't hotting up, we're fucked". Beard is typically reassuring:
     "Here's the good news. The UN estimates that already a third of a million people a year are dying from climate change."
       And, more succinctly:
"Toby, listen. We're facing a catastrophe. Relax."
       Little does Beard know just how much of a catastrophe he personally is facing, but his past (and a bit of the present) soon comes back to haunt and destroy him. McEwan gleefully has everything that can go wrong -- but all of it is Beard's own fault, and he finally has to face what he has made of his life. He, of course, sees it differently:
     He did not deserve these distractions . They were encircling him [...] in a conspiracy to prevent him making his gift to the world. None of this was his fault. People had said of him that he was brilliant, and that was right, he was a brilliant man trying to do good. Self-pity steadied him a little.
       But not for long.
       The setting seems a bit unlikely -- everyone rushes to New Mexico -- and McEwan piles it on thick (even Beard's body is letting him down), but at least everything comes together (i.e. falls apart) nicely. Yet it's also a rather hollow ending: Beard gets what he deserves, but it's hard to care much. He is a largely unsympathetic character, but he's not truly evil; one doesn't revel in his downfall. He is simply a weak man who gives in to his weaknesses (food -- with predictable results --, and women, especially), and whose weaknesses finally catch up with him (though, in fact, the book consists of a series of them catching up with him, just not quite as spectacularly).
       McEwan lingers over some episodes at great length, from Beard's train-trip in which he plays the 'Unwitting Thief' ("it's known in the field as UT" (as a lecturer in Urban Studies and Folklore tells him, after Beard has recounted his experience)) -- yet another case of (mis)appropriation by Beard -- to the Larry Summers-like comments (about why women are under-represented in physics) that lead to one downfall (though even he is surprised by how fleeting that disgrace turns out to be). They're revealing set pieces which McEwan handles quite well, yet they give an odd shape to the novel, which already lurches along by jumping ahead some five years from one section to the next to the next.
       When Beard asks the lecturer in Urban Studies and Folklore why he is at a conference he's told:
       "Well, I'm interested in the forms of narrative that climate science has generated. It's an epic story of course, with a million authors."
       Beard was suspicious. [...] People who kept on about narrative tended to have a squiffy view of reality, believing all versions of it to be of equal value.
       The differing attitudes towards narrative -- story-telling -- are quite well explored in the novel, too, as Beard both repeatedly reframes events to suit his purposes, creating a specific narrative of them for himself and others, and also finds himself playing a role in others' narratives that he has no control over (such as his disgrace over the comments about the lack of female physicists). Rarely, however, does he seem aware of his own narrative-shaping, and so McEwan also has him confronted with it several times, including when he uses, off the cuff, the anecdote of his train-experience in a speech.
       Relativism is also a major recurring themes. The 'hard' scientist Beard has little use for it, believing that science involves clear-cut facts. Yet regarding morality Beard is entirely a relativist (and often a shockingly callous one).
       Solar is not much of a book about renewable energy. McEwan uses it well as background material -- a bit of the science, the funding, the organizational issues (at the Centre Beard heads "a simple wheeze had turned into a monster", as they barrel down a fairly blind alley with their WUDU ('Wind turbine for Urban Domestic Use'), in a nice example of how the best scientific intentions can go awry). And Beard is a problematic character to focus on in this regard, as his early reaction is along the lines of:
     "Solar energy ?" Beard said mildly. He knew perfectly well what was meant, but still, the term had a dubious halo of meaning, an invocation of New Age Druids in robes dancing round Stonehenge at midsummer's dusk. He also distrusted anyone who routinely referred to "the planet" as proof of thinking big.
       McEwan tries to do a lot in this novel, and while many of the pieces are quite impressive they don't fit together particularly well. Perhaps most disappointing is that the basic outline of the story -- Beard's re-staging of an event, which directly affects several lives, and then the consequences of his actions -- is thriller-clever and good fun, but winds up largely getting lost in all the digressive padding that makes up his character-portrait of the unsympathetic Beard.
       After McEwan's recent run of solid (Saturday, On Chesil Beach) and excellent (Atonement) work, Solar comes as a disappointment. By focusing on a single day in Saturday, McEwan managed to keep that similar exercise under tighter control; spread out over a decade (with flashbacks, too), Solar and everything McEwan tries to touch on in it is much too loose.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 February 2010

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Solar: Reviews: Ian McEwan: Other books by Ian McEwan under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See the index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       British author Ian McEwan is the author of many fine novels. He won the Booker Prize for Amsterdam in 1998.

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