By Ian McEwan
First Published: 2010
Review © 2012 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Literature, Comedy, General Fiction
Solar is a recent fiction novel that contains some terrific humor by Ian McEwan, the author of Atonement. This is my first novel from McEwan so I can’t compare it to his other works but Solar has been described as his most comic novel. The promise of quality comedy writing along with a scientist as the main character dealing with issues of global warming and the development of solar technology was enough to bring this novel to my attention.
The main character in Solar is Michael Beard who won the Nobel Prize in Physics at a young age during his most creative period. But now, in middle age, Beard has done nothing of importance in years as he continues to live off the fame of his youth. Beard is not exactly likeable as he is an inveterate womanizer and is generally completely selfish, perhaps amplified by becoming a “star” in the scientific community at a young age. As he joins a government backed team to work on global warming, his 5th marriage is falling apart and he is beginning to realize that he has passed his prime and his life may be headed for a serious decline. Then, an extraordinary set of circumstances leads to the chance to eliminate a personal problem and at the same time to steal a brilliant new physics idea as Beard’s own, with the potential to revolutionize solar power technology.
Solar is divided into three sections with each section taking place about 5 years apart. The first section starts off the novel on a high note as it describes the personal comedy of Beard’s crumbling personal life and the institutional comedy of a government run basic research institute working on global warming issues that is tasked with creating some tangible results to display to the public. The scientific community gives McEwan an easy target for some sharp satire. In addition, McEwan employs slapstick and sophomoric comedy when Beard attends a conference in the artic that had me laughing out loud multiple times.
The second section contains some hilarious comedy about political correctness in the male dominated academic world of physics. In this section, Beard finds a new purpose for his life, becoming a missionary and champion for the development of new technology to save the planet. He also encounters new love from a woman who he readily admits is too good for him.
The third section nicely brings together the loose threads from the first two sections in some unexpected ways but the comedy begins to grow a little stale and the ending doesn’t live up to the full potential of the novel. In addition, Beard becomes, if anything, even more unlikeable as the novel progresses.
Solar is a worthwhile read for the quality of the writing and the comedy of the first half of the novel alone. It also provides an entertaining and satirical look into the modern scientific community. However, the initial promise of the novel was not sustained to the end which keeps this novel from reaching the top tier of comedy novels.