My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Perhaps it’s schadenfreude, or simple voyeurism, but only Ian McEwan and Margaret Atwood can make unlikeable characters so engaging. McEwan is also a master at believable immersion in the technical aspects of the characters’ world, in a way that myself, a former scientist, is totally engrossed. McEwan nails how scientists think, interact, and the hypocrisies and benefits, habits and mannerisms, as well as the unique demands on the mind and “real lives” of scientists. Reading this book was like being back as a professional scientists. The conversations were realistic, the thoughts and judgments of the characters were completely like the people I’ve worked with.
Back to McEwan’s unique skills as a writer: Solar features an overweight Nobel Prize winner who spends his time labeled as a scientist, lending the weight of his laureate-hood to “important” projects, the most keen being climate change. Told in three phases, the story revolves around the dissolution of Michael Beard’s fifth and final marriage, then around his attempts to build on the tragedy that ended it, and finally how he comes very close to realizing the dreams laid out in the first section.
Beard is not a good person. He has apparently won a prize not just for physics, but for denial, all the way to the end of the book. It snuck up on me as a reader, but whereas in the beginning Beard seems like kind of an endearing but hypocritical character, by the end his denial is so clear I expected him to react the way he did. And all of it is told in a perfectly sarcastic, almost slapstick voice. This isn’t Atonement at all, and the voice fits the story. This book is a good rebuttal to anyone who thinks that characters have to be likeable. They don’t, and plenty of authors prove otherwise.
Note to Douglas Adams fans: there is a scene in this book that looks entirely like a rip-off of So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, and I kinda freaked out when I read it. I was about ready to lose faith in McEwan, and strike him from my list of favorite authors, but keep reading! It plays into the story well, and even changed my opinion of Adams himself.