three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
47-July-Aug-2010
By: 
Ian McEwan
user_rating: 
0

A-Solar.epsThe Story: Corpulent, middle-aged, socially inept, and philandering physicist Michael Beard, now in his fifth unhappy marriage, has been resting on his Nobel Prize–winning reputation the past few years. Though chief of the Centre for Renewable Energy, he is not exactly dedicated to fighting climate change, but he commands hefty speaking fees nonetheless. To distract himself from his romantic woes, Beard travels to the Arctic to witness global warming for himself. Upon his return, Aldous, an assistant who has been wooing his wife, meets an untimely end. Framing it as a murder, Beard--as un-PC and promiscuous as ever--decides to profit from Aldous's work on sustainable energy, which just might save humanity and make him very, very rich.
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 287 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780385533416

Sunday Times (UK) 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Easily the brightest fictional mind we have, he has done the formidable research necessary to bring credibility not only to Beard's schemes to tap solar energy through artificial photosynthesis but to the novel's depiction of the world of physics and physicists in which he moves. ... Blazing with imaginative and intellectual energy, Solar is a stellar performance." Peter Kemp

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Solar offers both high-minded amusement in its skewering of environmentalist, postmodern and objectivist pieties, and, in the North Pole scenes in which Beard braves subzero cold and a hungry polar bear, something awfully close to slapstick. A comic global warming novel? Well ... why not?" Taylor Antrim

Telegraph (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"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. ... McEwan can move from comedy, a paean to the crisp (‘this particular chemical feast could not be found in Paris, Berlin or Tokyo') to real menace." Tibor Fischer

Guardian (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Once it became clear that the book's world is comic, I also found myself wondering if it wouldn't have benefited from being more loosely assembled, with shorter, discontinuous episodes and Beard functioning along the lines of Updike's Bech, Nabokov's Pnin or the consciousness in Calvino's Cosmicomics. ... When [Beard] gets his comeuppance, it's a powerful reminder that reality isn't a comic novel, and in its deepest implications, this book isn't one either." Christopher Tayler

Slate 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The larger meanings of Solar are no more straightforward. Is science really so divorced from the humanities, or intelligence from goodness, as McEwan provokingly suggests? It is not clear that he wants us to think so, or that he intends Solar to feel as misanthropic as it often does." Adam Kirsch

New York Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Despite the book's somber, scientific backdrop (and global warming here is little but that), Solar is Mr. McEwan's funniest novel yet--a novel that in tone and affect often reads more like something by Zoë Heller or David Lodge. ... The last two thirds of this novel, however, are oddly static, as Mr. McEwan repetitiously harps on Beard's gluttonous habits and growing waistline, his sexual promiscuity and his opportunistic efforts to cash in on global warming." Michiko Kakutani

Washington Post 2 of 5 Stars
"While Solar contains plenty of references to dwindling polar ice caps and rising CO2 levels, its real subject is the slippery nature of truth and the very fallible people who claim to pursue it. ... The plot seems allergic to itself, constantly arresting its own progress with not terribly pertinent flashbacks or abrupt jumps forward." Ron Charles

Critical Summary

Critics expressed decidedly mixed opinions about McEwan's latest work--and perhaps it's no surprise that he was better-reviewed on his UK home front. While most critics on either side of the pond praised the author's intelligent plot (especially his command of science) and ample storytelling gifts, the majority agreed that Solar is not his best novel to date. A few commented that the several narrative strands, which take place over more than a decade, do not cohere; Beard's jaunt to the North Pole, for example is interesting but tangential. Tired jokes, a rushed climax, and Beard's own piggish character felt claustrophobic to others. But most contentious of all was the satirical, comic tone superimposed on the very serious subject of climate change. Though Solar is a worthy inquiry into truth, morality, and the future of humanity, some critics could not get past McEwan's approach.