I hope you all had a wonderful holiday season and a happy new year. I’m returning today with a review of the novel Solar by Ian McEwan. I have previously read two of the author’s other books, Saturday and The Innocent. I had very different responses to those two novels: I found Saturday boring and pointless, but I really appreciated The Innocent. Solar, in terms of quality, falls between those two extremes. It is entertaining enough, but lacks the great story and character work that made The Innocent so good.
The main character of Solar is an aging physicist named Michael Beard, who develops new methods to harness social energy while he tries to manage a deteriorating personal life. Beard’s problem is that he is driven entirely by physical urges and desires. He moves from one woman to the next, saying and doing whatever it takes to seduce them. Likewise, he gradually grows more overweight as the book continues, because he cannot control himself from eating unhealthy foods. Beard does not truly care about anything beyond the satisfaction of his own needs. Even his mission to help the environment by using solar energy is based on his selfish desire for recognition, instead of a belief that he can benefit the world.
If you are a reader who cannot stand unlikable characters, then Solar isn’t for you. Michael Beard is just one among many characters in the novel who have little redeeming value. I can only think of one minor character near the end who has a positive influence on those around her, but she barely has an impact on the story. All of the other characters are either destructive, decent but make wrong decisions, or simply pointless. McEwan clearly wants his audience to find humour in the detestable actions of the characters, especially in the case of Beard, but that charm can only last so long. I enjoyed the absurdity of Beard near the beginning, when he reacts immaturely to his current wife’s adultery (which was revenge for his own infidelity), but by the second half of the book, I was tired of his limited view of the world. His reluctance to make better decisions made him more annoying than amusing to me. McEwan does lead the novel to an interesting conclusion, but not one where I could sympathize with any of the characters.
McEwan’s choice to make Solar about the current energy crisis made the book seem interesting to me before I read it, but unfortunately, that side of the book is never quite developed. Perhaps because the problem is ongoing, the author does not offer any real commentary on the subject or reveal whether Beard’s research will be successful. I wouldn’t expect a novelist to know enough about social energy to save the planet, but I would have liked it if he made some statement about the crisis. McEwan could have at least used the concept as a metaphor for Beard’s personal flaws, but he never bothers to do that, either. It sounds like all of the science in the book is accurate, but solar energy is ultimately a subplot that could have been removed or replaced with an entirely different field of research. McEwan’s use of the topic appears to be a failed attempt to remain current. It reminds me of his novel Saturday, which didn’t have a story because he was too busy making references to current events. In ten years, both Saturday and Solar will just seem outdated.
Compared to other novelists, Ian McEwan has an intellectual writing style that many consider pretentious. I’m a little undecided on his style, because I do appreciate more sophisticated prose, but it can also seem dry at times. If I try to read his work for more than about twenty or thirty pages at a time, I can find it difficult to concentrate. I can forgive his style when the characters or story are interesting, but unfortunately, Solar does not have a strong plot as an incentive.
The title Solar reminds me of two Latin words: sol, which means “the sun,” and solus, meaning “alone.” The most intriguing concept I found in the book is the conflict between those two ideas. Michael Beard and other scientists want to use solar energy to save the world, but they are still flawed humans, driven by their desire for immediate personal satisfaction. The idea that those who work for the planet’s survival may be even more corrupt than the average person is interesting to me.
I found Solar a decent enough story, but very little about it stands out as exceptional. The plot, characters, and writing style are not necessarily weak, but they’re not memorable either. I give Solar a 3 out of 5. I wouldn’t really recommend the novel to anyone unless they have already read and enjoyed Ian McEwan books before. If you have any interest in the author, I would suggest The Innocent as a different starting point, because that’s the only book I’ve read from that I would consider great.