Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Interns Blog: Solar was Golden

Marie C.

I like to consider myself a methodically drifting reader—wandering book shops and libraries, almost aimlessly scanning book cover after book cover until I find something aesthetically pleasing enough for me to read. I first came upon Ian McEwan in 2007 when his novel, Atonement was turned into the beautifully filmed movie starring Keira Knightly and James McAvoy. True to type, I decided that I needed to read the novel before I could possibly see the movie. Unfortunately, I found his main character, Briony Tallis—a young girl who tells her family that her sister’s boyfriend raped her cousin, throwing a downward spiral into the young lovers’ lives that ultimately ends in their death—was so despicable that I couldn’t read it anymore. Since 2007, I’ve always looked longingly at my copy of Atonement, still dog-eared in place, wishing I could bring myself to finish it. Naturally, when I was assigned On Chesil Beach in my Novels and Novellas course during my senior year at Hartwick College, I groaned at the thought of having to read another piece of his work, and, to my surprise, I fell in love with him. Not only does he have the ability to make his readers hate his characters, but with one stroke, he can paint the agonizingly opposing portraits of the wedding night between a young, rough, rural man and his straight, proper, fairly wealthy wife. From then on, I have read anything by him that has come along, including many short stories and a handful of novels. He positions his perfectly crafted characters in a specific time, cementing them forever in the fictional universe of World War II (Atonement), the social onset of the Rolling Stones’ fame (On Chesil Beach), and the universal climate crisis (Solar).

Solar, McEwan’s latest novel published in 2010, follows Nobel Laureate physicist, Michael Beard, as he half-heartedly tries to tackle the prospect of solar energy through three phases of his life: the years 2000, 2005, and 2009. Beard has lost all passion for his cause, his life, and his general well-being. As the novel opens, the physicist’s fifth marriage is crumbling because his wife has learned of seemingly endless line of women that he has had affairs with not only during the course of their marriage, but for his entire life. Patrice, his wife, retaliates by having an affair of her own—with two men. One of which is painted as a big, burly builder, a true man’s man, while the other, a post-doc Cambridge University graduate working directly under Beard, Tom Aldous. Aldous is your typical science nerd—lanky, long hair pulled back in a ponytail (Beard often calls the group Aldous associates with the ponytails), socially withdrawn, and adamant about the use of solar energy. He frequently tries to share his ideas with Beard, who ignores the eager young scientist because he’s got his private life to think about. Little does he know that Aldous was playing dual roles in both his professional and private lives. Upon returning from a trip to the arctic, Beard discovers the Cambridge grad sprawled on his couch in his bathrobe. The two argue about Patrice and Aldous again offers his ideas on solar energy, completely missing the point that he was sleeping with his boss’s wife. Beard fires him and just as Aldous goes to run after him in an effort to beg his forgiveness, he slips on the polar bear carpet that isn’t very secured to the polished wooden floorboards of Beard’s magnificent home and hits his head on the corner of a glass coffee table and dies. A freak accident. Uncomprehendingly both to the reader and Beard, this Nobel-winning scientist covers up Aldous’ accidental death with the tools of his wife’s other lover, framing him. Following the murder trial, Beard comes out as the cuckolded scientist who cares so much about the environment that he didn’t realize that his wife was cheating on him. Then, he steals Aldous’ work on solar energy and uses it as his own. To the media, Beard’s life is going swimmingly. To McEwan’s reader, Beard’s life is one jumbled mess, reflected in the veritable garbage heap that he calls his apartment. While simultaneously maintaining two affairs, fathering a daughter, getting substantially fatter, and developing skin cancer and a drinking problem, Beard pioneers Aldous’ solar energy ideas in artificial photosynthesis, never mentioning that they aren’t really his. The novel culminates in Texas, just before his artificial photosynthesis project launches and saves the world, Beard’s mistresses meet, Aldous’ lawyer threatens a costly lawsuit, and his ex-wife’s framed lover, free from jail, threatens his life. All in one day. McEwan just ends the novel there.

I like to think that Michael Beard’s strained heart finally gave out due to all of the stress, but we’ll never really know. I liked this novel a lot. It was a slow read because I’m generally disinterested in science, but I came out of it thinking that Michael Beard was a real person. It just goes to show that someone can be really, really intelligent and good in their field, but that’s about all there is to them. Michael Beard is one-sided. He approaches all sides of his life empirically. He does not consider feelings or emotions. He is the rational-push-it-under-the-rug type. You don’t see too many characters like that in fiction. Most have a purpose. Beard does not. Years from now, I’ll probably still consider McEwan’s character a real person, and I’m just fine with that. Maybe now I can find my way back to Atonement.

Marie Cummings is the marketing intern for Cambridge University Press’ College Sales and Marketing group.

About The Author

Marie C.

Marie is a library marketing associate in Cambridge's New York office. Follow her @cambridgelib....

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