Solar, by Ian McEwan. Published 2010 by Random House.
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Solar, Booker-prize-winning author Ian McEwan's latest novel, is a satire of science, academia and a certain type of aging Lothario- the faded celebrity. Michael Beard is a middle-aged, portly British scientist, a Nobel Laureate whose life, when we meet him, is on the downswing. His latest wife flaunts her infidelities with their contractor, he works at a depressing sinecure anticipating the end of the world via global warming and none of the young scientists he works with appreciates or respects him. Then, as tends to happen in McEwan's novels, something unfortunate happens to someone out of the blue. All of a sudden, everything changes, and all of his problems are solved at once.
Beard's career takes off as he develops a new method for harnessing solar energy. He's able to take revenge on his wife's lover. He becomes celebrated and loved. But all is not well, and the reader is left waiting to watch the train wreck to come- the moment when Beard's lies and frauds come together to destroy him. Beard's personal turpitude and messiness reflects his moral chaos; he gains vast amounts of weight, he lives in squalor and seeks to deprive his lover of the child she desperately wants. Food is Michael Beard's one true love, the only thing that comforts him and never deserts him, never cheats or lies or betrays. Take, for example, his loving description of one classic of the American family restaurant: "lozenges of orange-colored cheese dipped in batter, rolled in bread crumbs and salt, and deep-friend, with a creamy dip of pale green. Perfection, and in such quantity."
Michael Beard is not an easy man to like, and since the novel is told from his unreliable point of view, not liking him will mean not liking the book. I wasn't crazy about Beard, but I saw the book as a satire and Beard as a clown, albeit an unfortunate one set to live out his days in McEwan's cruel and merciless universe. I love McEwan's writing; pages turn effortlessly and the prose is slick and glossy. I wanted to see that moment when Beard's house of cards collapses and I like the way McEwan defies expectations when it does. Relatively mild in terms of violence and horror, Solar would be a great first McEwan; fans of his will enjoy the black humor and satire. Either way, it's a sharp-eyed winner of a novel.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.