Solar – Ian McEwan

Solar is one of the big contenders for the Booker Prize this year so I decided to see if it is good enough to beat The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet.

I have to admit that I haven’t had much success with Ian McEwan so far. I wasn’t a fan of The Comfort of Strangers or Amsterdam, but have heard that his books are very different from each other and so was prepared to give him another try.

Solar centres on Michael Beard, a physicist who has won the Nobel Prize. He is an unlikable man who has had numerous affairs and seems to enjoy manipulating people more than engaging with them. Beard travels the world talking at conferences and reluctantly leads a government-backed initiative tackling global warming.

Solar is the best McEwan I’ve read so far, but I had a lot of problems with it. The book is packed with physics:

Quantum mechanics. What a repository, a dump, of human aspiration it was, the borderland where mathematical rigour defeated common sense, and reason and fantasy irrationally merged.

I did a course on quantum mechanics at university so understood the ridiculously long scientific passages (as much as anyone can claim to really understand quantum mechanics!) but I’m not sure why the science was needed – it wasn’t an integral part of the plot and I don’t think it added anything. It will go over the heads of most readers and the fact that everything needed explanation meant that the passages weren’t realistic portrayals of scientists. To illustrate this point I’ve invented two conversations.

Which conversation do you think is more likely to occur?

Baker 1: I’m just putting 20 loaves of bread into the oven.

Baker 2: I hope that you added some yeast to make them all rise.

Baker 1: Yes, it amazing to think that it was only in 1857 that Louis Pasteur discovered that yeast was a living organism whose activity caused fermentation.

Baker 2: Did you add some sugar for the yeast to feed on?

Baker 1: Yes, the yeast and the sugar produced carbon dioxide that will make the bread light and fluffy.


Baker 1: I’m just putting 20 loaves of bread into the oven.

Baker 2: Thanks. I’ll have my lot ready to go in soon.

This over-explanation of everything annoyed me and some of the science felt stilted; there were also a few sections that didn’t quite ring true. If we ignore the physics then there is a reasonable story buried in this book. I actually enjoyed reading the middle section, the small glimpses of plot in other areas and I thought the ending was very appropriate too.

Several sections were quite amusing, but I’m not a big fan of satire and so the ridicule was wasted on me.

I think that fans of McEwan will love this new one, but I’m hoping the Booker judges decide that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is the better book.

Which is your favourite McEwan book?

Have you read Solar? What did you think of it?

Opinions appear to be very mixed:

…dull as dishwater. BookNAround

…one of my very favourite books of the year so far.  Savidge Reads

49 replies on “Solar – Ian McEwan”

I enjoyed On Chesil Beach, even though it was bleak. Still it was beautiful and sparse. I won a signed copy of Solar from Simon that I am hoping will arrive in time to donate to my Adult Literacy League event. There is a good chance I will have to bid on it! I will just remember that when it comes to the scientific details, I’ll just have to skim. It won’t mean a darned thing to me!

Sandy, I’m not sure I’ll enjoy ‘beautiful and sparse’ but it is a short book that I already own, so I might try it one day.

I’m not sure you should be reading the signed copy – I think that might have to be saved in pristene condition! It will be interesting in knowing your thoughts on this one so I hope you get a chance to read it at some point.

Oh dear. This is exactly where McEwan went wrong in “Saturday” and I haven’t enjoyed him since. It does not bode well for my own reading of “Solar”. Perhaps I won’t even bother.

lizzy, I haven’t read Saturday, but it sounds as though I should avoid it! Saturday didn’t win the Booker prize, so perhaps those judges will agree with me on this one and award the prize to Mitchell or Martel – I’ve got my fingers crossed!

Interesting. I read Saturday and loooooved it! But maybe that was because I listened to it on audio. There are just some books that are better that way. Perhaps this is one of them. Still, I thought it was great. If you ever get the chance to listen to it on audio, I recommend it.

Lija, Thanks! Hopefully it will mean that people will be able to decide if they are able to cope with explanations of everything or if it will drive them nuts too!

I really don’t get what the fuss about Ian McEwan’s works is all about – not having liked Amstersdam or Atonement. I read last week somewhere that a critic thought his books would have worked better as short stories!

Kinna, I’m not sure I understand it either! I think I just have a very different taste in books. Perhaps I’ll enjoy him more as I get older?

I’ve decided that his style is what it is, my reading preferences and patience are what they are so I’m just not going to bother with any more McEwan. I will stick with the likes of Colm Toibin.

Your two conversations are great! I’ve seen so many books with Style #1. It’s annoying when you think of all the better writers who have trouble getting published! On the other hand, although I am not a fan of McEwan, I do very much love physics. But I wonder if McEwan would manage to kill my affection for it?!!!

rhapsodyinbooks, I don’t think that reading Solar will kill your passion for physics, but I don’t think it will inspire you either. It does seem that he wants to show just how much he knows, but it doesn’t impress me. Just throwing equations into a book doesn’t make it exciting 🙁

I am one of those people who is not a fan of Ian McEwan, so picking a favourite book by him is hard. I really HATED Amsterdam, however, and that was the book that made me decide that I’m just not going to read anything more by him any more. I find his books painful to read, and based on your experiences with this one, I don’t think I’d like this very much at all. And I like science and all that jazz, but still: no!

Steph, I wouldn’t say I hated Amsterdam – I just found it to be nothing special. This one is reasonably easy to read, but I think that if you hated his previous books then you might be best to avoid this one.

It appears obvious to me, without having read the book yet, that because McEwan is no scientist (like us!) he feels he has to explain everything.

You may not remember when Horizon on BBC2 used to be a truly wonderful science programme, but these days it’s gone all popular and overexplains everything – OH and I spend all our time shouting at the telly – tell us something we don’t know! This is where some of the serials like ER (and arguably House) got/get it right and manage to tag us along without justifying themselves.

I hope to read it soon – and it’ll be interesting to see if I concur! BTW, you should read Chesil Beach (it is a quick read …).

Annabel. I will be really interested to see what you make of this one – it will be good to compare scientific notes!!

I do remember the wonderful Horizon! It is such a shame that so much TV is dumbed down these days. I don’t watch ER or House but know my best-friend (who is a doctor) loves them, so they must be doing something right. I do wish I’d seen ER, but by the time I found out about it I had missed too much to catch up. Everything Micheal Crichton did was wonderful, so perhaps I will have to buy those DVDs of series one!

I normally try to avoid posting comments that do not add anything new, but I just had to praise your bakers analogy. It was a point well made. A scientist who sat along side Ian McEwan on Start the Week (BBC Radio 4) a couple of weeks ago was actually quite complimentary about the science in Solar, though I think the question he was asked was about how accurate it was. What your analogy shows is that just because something might be scientifically correct does not mean it represents plausible dialogue in a novel. I suspect I will end up somewhere in the middle on this book, not least because that is normally where I land with regard to McEwan, perhaps oddly for an author who seems to drive most people to the poles of love and hate.

David, Thank you for the kind words. I think most of the science in Solar is accurate. There were a few times when I thought McEwan didn’t really understand it as it didn’t flow well, but overall it was pretty good.

I’m on the fence for this book – there were some great bits, but several unrealistic sections. Quite good, but not outstanding. I hope that you enjoy it!

Yawn. Nothing I have read about Solar so far has convinced me that it is anything but boring!

I have read Atonement and although I didn’t unreservedly love it, I did love parts of it (I haven’t seen the film adaptation because it was so hyped). I’m not in a rush to read more McEwan.

Claire, LOL! I wouldn’t describe this book as boring as it irritated me as much as it entertained – I was never bored. I think I’ll be happy not to rush out and read more of his books in the near future though.

Well, Jackie, I think you have convinced me that the t shirt will definitely fit me better than the novel! I actually liked Saturday but just couldn’t get into Amsterdam or Atonement. However, I am an eternal optimist and I still have On Chesil Beach on my shelves – maybe I should make it my reading challenge for 2010??

Teresa, LOL! I hope that T-shirt fits nicely! I’m not going to encourage any McEwan reading challenge, but feel free to read it if you want to!

I do want to read this. My favourite McEwan is Comfort of Strangers though, with Atonement coming a close second. Sorry you didn’t like the former, but I found it extremely gripping.

Am looking forward to reading both, the McEwan and the David
Mitchell. Guess I will like the Mitchell more.

Anothercookiecrumbles, If you enjoyed other McEwans then I’m sure you’ll love this one. I look forward to finding out what you make of this and the Mitchell – I do love anticipating the Booker prize.

Excellent illustration, Jackie, and I know exactly what you mean…..things like that in a book drive me nuts…it just seems so danged contrived. I haven’t had any luck with McEwan either, although it doesn’t stop me from trying. I haven’t read this one yet, but won’t likely pick it up any time soon based on your description here….I can just tell I’d be irritated by the whole thing.

Michele, I will keep trying McEwan too. The fact that people love some of his books, but hate others makes me really intrigued by them. Hopefully I’ll find one I love at some point.

Enduring Love was the first McEwan book I read and I enjoyed it very much. I didn’t like Amsterdam or The Child in Time. It’s true that his books are different and I find some are much better than others. I did like Atonement and grudgingly enjoyed the film, despite Keira Knightly’s diction – I couldn’t understand most of what she said.

Solar just didn’t appeal to me when I first heard of it and less so now I’ve read more reviews.

Beth, LOL! I didn’t love Amsterdam, but his others are supposed to be very different. I’ll let you know if I find one that you might enjoy.

Ugh, the overexplaining is exactly why I can’t stand McEwan, at least the two books of his I read. I got so frustrated with that. Probably won’t be reading Solar even though I have heard nice things about it.

Jenny, I think I might enjoy it if I didn’t know the things he was over explaining. It is good to know that I’m not the only one to feel this way about his writing.

Hi Jacky – thank you so much for the analogy about the baker’s conversation. It conveys the point with beautiful economy and I’ll always think of that when I find myself over-explaining in my own novels. Regarding Ian McEwan, I have a huge admiration for his versatility. I was interested to see that Booksplease is the only one to have mentioned Enduring Love which I thought was superb. I did enjoy Saturday, particularly for the way that he seamlessly wove his own and his family’s stories into that single day’s events. I even enjoyed all the brain-surgery stuff because I was interested in it, but I take the point.
As I’ve only started reading about science etc within the past few years, having been ‘educated’ in the days of total separation between ‘arts-type’ and ‘science/maths-type children. I’ve still got loads to catch up on about everything that makes the physical world go round, so I think I might enjoy Solar myself.
It’s been really interesting to read all these different views. There’s so much involved in our own reading preferences ! I loved A Child in Time, when I read that many years ago, but I was very disappointed in Amsterdam – a rather thin book in both ways.

Christine, It sounds as though you might love this book. I think McEwan writes science for art lovers, so if you are interested in learning about science then this could be an enjoyable read for you.

I read Enduring Love, another McEwan focusing on Michael Beard, and I wasn’t all that impressed. I did enjoy reading it, but I don’t think I could really tell you what it was about now. I know there was a hot air balloon. . . I don’t think I’ll be reading more of his. Just doesn’t seem like my cup of tea! Sorry it wasn’t a good one for you.

She, I didn’t realise that Beard had appeared in his books before – thanks for letting me know! I wonder if I missed out on anything by not having read Enduring Love first.

Hmmm interesting. I hated science at school and switched off from it all (much to the annoyance of my step dad who was my science teacher) and I didn’t find the science that difficult to take in and I think the reason its in the book is because its what Beard and everyone around him is about really, it wouldn’t make sense not to have it in, one of the themes is global warming.

Do you think this will make it onto the Man Booker Longlist? I think so much attention is being paid to Mitchell, Amis and McEwan and Booker presumptions being made by us all that we might just get a shock. I kind of hope so wise wheres the fun in it all if its already sort of guessed and decided?

Simon, I think this will be on the Booker long list, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t make the short list. I think this is a very strong year for literature and I have read quite a few books that are much more deserving of the award than this one. It will be interesting to see which books make the list.

Over-explanation is one of the most annoying thing I can find in a book. The story can be great, the writing can be great, but if the author inserts school-teachings in between the narration, it will most likely diminish my appreciation of it. However, I have only read one book by McEwan so far and I would be willing to try another one, maybe even this one! Who knows!

Was the physics talk mostly in dialogue or narration? Because if it was the latter, I could understand it (and agree that the second convo is more likely to occur in your example). I read something a couple years ago that completely floored me and made me rethink things I don’t understand in books (I never even took physics in high school! I took A.P. Psych instead!) Anyways, I read in the back of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose that a teenager, or maybe young adult, had told him that he didn’t understand any of the theology in the book, but that for him it sort of acted like the music in a Hitchcock movie. It was atmospheric. Eco loved that. Since then, when a book touches on a lot of things I don’t get, I think about that, and how it’s presence affects the mood of the book. For example, I’m reading a book about the Vietnam War and I understand little to nothing about the weaponry. There are whole paragraphs about it with things that are mainly composed of acronyms and numbers and totally over my head. Now, in a war book, this is perhaps more essential than say the physics in this book, though the author could have dumbed it down (big gun verses little gun). But it is needed, and creates a sort of energy among the characters that leaving out the details might not. Same with theology in a book about monks, and, I take it, physics in a book about a physics professor.

Sorry for the crazy long comment!

Oh — I’ve been off traveling so I’ve missed book blogs these past couple weeks. Your conversation was brilliant! I think I’ll be expounding on science next time I cook something. Well, granted that I actually have to cook something…
I kind of enjoy McEwan, but I have to give enough time to read his books, since they are rather dense with explanations and observations. Kind of like a really rich chocolate cake that you have to eat a little at a time to best appreciate. Of the three books of his I’ve read, I enjoyed Atonement the best. Since this is so physics-driven, I may get to a couple others of his before I get to this one, though. Hope your reading is going well!

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