Solar, by Ian McEwan

Michael Beard won a Nobel prize fairly early on in his career, and has drifted through life trading on his success without achieving much else. His private life is a bit of a mess, with four failed marriages behind him, and the fifth falling apart. Working at a facility researching alternative energy sources, a keen young scientist tries to persuade him of the potential of solar power to solve the problems of global warming and peak oil.

I was a bit hesitant about reading this because I had it in mind that the book would be a bit more worthy than entertaining, but in fact it was a really good read. It mostly reminded me of David Lodge, partly because of the middle-aged male protagonist (cf. Vic Wilcox, Tubby Passmore), and partly because of the way the book was had involved the author investigating a particular field (cf. neuroscience, philosophy) and then weaving a story around it. And like Lodge, it was also pretty funny.

Beard was particularly believable, as someone who is at the same time very experienced in his own subject field, able to cruise through presentations he gives at conferences, but hopelessly disorganised in his private life. There's a good description towards the end of the book of his realisation that while he had always had the expectation that, one day, he'd be in control and have his life organised and running smoothly, in fact that's never going to happen.

I also was impressed by the way that McEwan was able to describe Beard's opinion of the arts as compared to science: while studying as an undergraduate, Beard takes a fancy to an English student, and mugs up on Milton for a couple of weeks in order to be able to impress her. He is struck by how he finds it relatively easy to learn enough to discuss things in a way convincing enough to win the girl, and how it's impossible to conceive of an arts student learning sufficient theoretical physics to perform the trick in reverse.

When Beard has an argument with a strident feminist about the reasons why there's an imbalance between men and women in science, you can sense and identify with his frustration at being able deploy his scientific arguments against what he sees as the woolly-ness of her sociological ones. And as you're reading, you can sympathise with both sides of the argument, so it's not as if McEwan is poking fun at one of them (or perhaps he's trying to show that they're both equally bigoted and ridiculous).

I don't think this was quite as good a novel as some of the more serious ones he's done, and it wasn't as good as Saturday, but it was a pretty good read.

Completed : 30-Jul-2011

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