Let's admit right up front that Michael Beard is a thoroughly unlikable, even despicable, character. He is selfish, self-absorbed, insincere, apparently incapable of honestly caring for another human being. When we meet him, he is on his fifth marriage and every one of them has been marked by his constant infidelities which were the causes of the endings of the first four.
Uniquely, in his fifth marriage, when his wife learns of his philandering, instead of screaming and crying and demanding a divorce, she cheerfully takes that knowledge as a license to take her own lovers. Which she does. And, of course, Michael cannot tolerate that. What's sauce for the gander is most definitely not sauce for the goose in his world.
Michael Beard was at one time a world class physicist. He had even won the Nobel Prize for his work. But that was years ago. These days he's simply coasting on his reputation, delivering speeches for pay and lending his name to be used on letterheads of various scientific institutions. He's also nominally the head of a government backed initiative to address global warming, but his participation in this effort is desultory at best.
Michael Beard at the beginning of Solar is a late middle-aged, overweight, disorganized, greedy, lazy, weak-willed slob of a man. How can one possibly care what happens to such a man? And yet Ian McEwan cleverly inveigles us into caring. By the end of the book, when the adoring and adorable three-year-old daughter whom he never wanted runs into his arms, we may still not like Michael Beard much but at least we have begun to understand a bit of what made this unlikable protagonist who he is.
Along the way, Beard has been transformed from a perfunctory role in the fight against global warming to an active and enthusiastic warrior. How this happens is at the crux of the plot and I won't discuss it except to say that it comes about as the result of a tragic accident.
Beard comes into possession of an idea for transforming the elements of water to create and enhance solar power, thereby providing an inexhaustible source of clean and cheap energy for the world, a source of energy that can be used all over the planet and will finally put an end to the dominance of dirty fossil fuels. Thus this loathsome character becomes a protagonist in a noble endeavor - bringing cheap solar power to the world.
Ian McEwan is an extraordinarily talented writer and I can't begin to adequately critique the way he has worked his magic here. I'm perfectly happy with that. I don't necessarily have to understand exactly how everything works in order to enjoy it. I can only say that this is actually quite a funny novel and even though Michael Beard is not warm and lovable, there are some thoroughly likable characters here. The women characters are particularly strong. They would have to be to deal with Michael!
My rating: 5 of 5 stars