Review: Solar by Ian McEwan (with book club and audiobook notes)

10 Feb

SolarMy rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

I’ll be upfront about this: I doubt I would have finished Solar if I hadn’t been reading it for book club. It featured an unlikeable main character, and spent way too much time on his bodily functions.

But I still gave it 3.5 stars, not a bad rating at all.

The book (like its main character) wasn’t likable, but it was interesting.

Summary via Ian McEwan’s website:

Michael Beard is in his late fifties; bald, overweight, unprepossessing – a Nobel prize-winning physicist whose best work is behind him. Trading on his reputation, he speaks for enormous fees, lends his name to the letterheads of renowned scientific institutions and half-heartedly heads a government-backed initiative tackling global warming. An inveterate philanderer, Beard finds his fifth marriage floundering. When Beard’s professional and personal worlds are entwined in a freak accident, an opportunity presents itself, a chance for Beard to extricate himself from his marital mess, reinvigorate his career and very possibly save the world from environmental disaster.

It’s easy to say why I didn’t like Beard. The first thing you learn about him is that he’s a philanderer with a double standard. From there he just adds fault upon fault– he was evidently once brilliant, and he’s still smart, but he just coasts by in jobs that want his name on their letterhead. Anything that goes wrong is someone else’s fault (and he’ll go to serious effort to ensure that everyone else thinks so too). He’s so self centered that no one else’s perspective is anywhere on his radar.

On the other hand, he can be charming, and given his egocentricity, his views make a certain kind of sense. They are entertaining to read because they are so far removed from reality.

Similarly, I could sit back and watch the events of the book unfold, no matter how preposterous at times. It’s all rooted in reality.

I could have done without the bodily humor– the scene that goes on and on about him going out into the arctic while needing to pee, finally stopping to take care of it, then thinking that part of his anatomy has frozen and broken off; A scene where he eats too much thinking he might be hungry later, then gives a speech thinking he needs to throw up (finally stepping aside to do just that), descriptions of the smells associated with sex between two older, fat participants.

I think that what makes this book work is that in his sea of faults, I could see some of my own.

I liked the setup, but when reading the book, I felt the entire Global Warming/Clean Energy thing was a convenient and interesting backdrop, not really part of what the book was trying to discuss. My book club convinced me that it was more integrated into the novel than I had thought.

Audiobook Notes

Narrator: I think Roger Allam may have saved the book for me.  I normally have a much harder time with unlikeable main characters in audiobooks than I do in printed ones, but Roger made Beard an OK person to spend all this time with.

Production: Nothing noteworthy about it (good or bad).

Audio vs. Print? Our book club meeting had 3 audiobook readers, 2 print reader, and one non-reader (didn’t have a chance to read it).  Our opinions of the book were all very similar. I think.  In general, I prefer print to audio when a book has unlikeable characters (I just don’t want to spend all that time with them), but I think the narrator overcame some of those issues for me.  On the other hand, I do wish I could have skimmed through various parts mentioned above.  I’ll give a slight nod to print here.

Book Club Notes

I read this book for my book club M. The five of us that read the book had a fairly similar opinion of it, as I described above.  At least one person thought it picked up once she got into it, although I wasn’t the only one not sure if she’d have finished it if it wasn’t for book club.

We had a good discussion, largely centered around the character of Michael Beard– how realistic was he, what motivated him at different points in the story.  We talked about whether he was believable as a brilliant (not just smart man).  We also talked about the other characters, and whether there were any of them we could actually like.

We then talked about what the book was saying about solar power, renewable energy, global warming, and scientists in general.  As I mentioned, this conversation convinced me that McEwan had something to say about the state of the world, the politics of science, and about scientists and bureaucrats, which adds to my appreciation of this book.


Posted by on February 10, 2011 in Book Club, books, M, reviews


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5 responses to “Review: Solar by Ian McEwan (with book club and audiobook notes)

  1. Patti's Pages

    March 7, 2011 at 9:17 am

    Actually, I thought the humor, especially while Beard was in the Arctic, was the best part. For me, the book deteriorated after that. You’re right that Beard was completely despicable. What did all those women see in him?

  2. Chris

    December 3, 2012 at 8:18 am

    Solar is a satire – if you understand this fundamental fact, you will like this novel:

    “Satire is a mode of writing that exposes the failings of individuals, institutions, or societies to ridicule and scorn. Satire is often and incidental element in literary works that may not be wholly satirical, especially in comedy. Its tone may vary from tolerant amusement…to bitter indignation.” – Chris Baldick

    Michael Beard is the embodiment of the Western World’s flaws – we are gluttonous, apoplectic, self apologetic, sex freaks who are to blame for no wrong doing in our own lives or that of the environment. This novel is satirizing not only our entire society, but the small sub-sect of our society – the scientists who are working on the climate-change issue and renewable energies.

    The boot room, for example, is direct social commentary on the disorganization and inability for these brilliant scientists to even keep a boot room organized. If they can’t do this simple task, how can they save our world?

    Yes, Michael Beard is a terrible human being who has everything coming to him – but he is that way because we are that way. And you have to admit, you like him just a little bit and it disgusts you. That is what McEwan is trying to accomplish with this character. He is trying to make us introspectively look at ourselves and our society in order to promote a positive change.

    • Laura

      December 3, 2012 at 6:00 pm

      I can honestly say that I didn’t see any of myself in Michael Beard and I didn’t like him even a little bit. I certainly have my own flaws, but they are different than his.

      Thank you for an interesting perspective on the book.


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