Ian McEwan is not one of my favorite writers, but that’s because I’ve read only one of his books, Solar. On the other hand, if all his books are written like Solar, he may never be a real favorite, though he has a lot to recommend him.
Solar is all about Michael Beard, a Ph.D. physicist who won a Nobel Prize for his “Beard-Einstein Conflation,” a rather esoteric though significant advance that describes the interaction of light with matter. As the Nobel committee member who introduced him put it, it’s a “subtle symmetry that greatly simplifies calculations … his theory revealed that the events that take place when radiation interacts with matter propagate coherently over a large-scale comparable to the size of atoms.” In other words, it extends quantum mechanics from the subatomic to the atomic level, a tremendous achievement, fictitious or not. The introducer also drops Richard Feynman’s name into the mix. (Have you noticed we seem to like to drop Feynman’s name almost as much as Einstein’s lately?)
But Solar is much more than the dry, tiresome details of Beard’s Nobel acceptance. Michael Beard is a VIP. He’s rich, well-to-do, and well-known in the physics community. He addresses groups all over the world, frequently on his favorite subject, the use of solar power to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But his fifth marriage (this one is to Patrice) is falling apart, and he takes it badly. His wife is having an affair with Rodney Tarpin, the builder who is remodeling their house, and she’s been blatant enough about it that Beard doesn’t have to guess at it. Tarpin is muscular and fit, but Beard is “bald, short, fat and clever.” His wife has been compared to Marilyn Monroe (!) by friends of his, though, of course, Beard’s convinced she’s even better looking than Monroe. You get the picture.
In the middle of this, Michael Beard takes a trip, a “fact-finding” trip to the north polar region, and when he returns, he runs into one of his post-doctoral fellows, Tom Aldous, who, in the meantime, has also had an affair with Patrice. Almost catches him in the act. Aldous is in the living room wearing Beard’s dressing gown, and in the confrontation, slips on a polar bear rug and hits his head on a glass table and dies, pretty much instantly. A terrible tragedy? Call the authorities? Not Michael Beard, he goes to work and arranges for the death to look like Aldous had been intentionally bludgeoned by Tarpin. Tarpin goes to jail, and the stage is set for retribution.
I found the book readable, but overly detailed. It’s virtually all narration, with little dialogue. In fact, the first dialogue of the book doesn’t come until the 23rd page of the novel. (If I, as an unpublished novelist, sent a manuscript like that to an agent or editor, they’d throw it back at me. That’s not the way things are done, nowadays. Gotta get dialogue right up front.) Though we come to know Michael Beard in intimate detail (even to the level of how he masturbates), we’re left with little interaction between him and other characters. The book is all Beard. I found myself, about half-way though the book, thinking seriously about putting it down because I couldn’t tell where the massive detail was leading me. Page after page of minutiae almost drowns the book, and much of it has little to do with the actual outcome of the story. I’ve never read a book that was so good that “I couldn’t put it down,” and this was far from it.
Yet, on the other hand, I kept reading, hoping that McEwan knew what he was doing and would wrap all this up. He does a reasonably good job of that, and I must say I liked the ending. It was consistent with the convoluted plot line, but surprising enough to hold my interest.
Do I recommend it? Yes, but be advised that this isn’t light reading.