I Wouk’s call this one historical fiction. It was pretty interesting. Thanks for the review copy. I know lots enjoy McEwan’s books.
Lessons by Ian McEwan is a lengthy tome of a book made for loves of literary fiction. It's a character study with a sense of history that follows the life of Roland - a successful pianist set against the backdrop of post-war England.
Many thanks to the author, publisher, and NetGalley for sharing this book with me. All thoughts are my own.
This novel progresses like an autobiography, and since the writer is, to our good fortune, still living, the story has a great deal of trouble finding an ending. It lacks the grace, polish, and form of good fiction. And yes, there are direct parallels to McEwan's life, particularly the story of his brother. The plot meanders, sways, dips, and rises. The protagonist loves, loses, and mourns characters he loves and knows intimately, but we do not know them at all well and so the fuss leaves the reader a bit confused and, at times, is within shouting distance of the maudlin.
But this is McEwan, and he is a brilliant intellect and a great writer. There is something very interesting going on in the parallel not only between the protagonist and his brother Robert but between the former and his wife Alissa, a kind of doppelganger dynamic concerning what turns out to be and what might have been, not unlike what Henry James treats in The Jolly Corner. McEwan's protagonist is a precocious and brilliantly talented artist who accomplishes nothing, while his wife, who is less obviously talented at first, becomes a great and famous artist. To do so she trades in her life. He retains his, such as it is.
I think McEwan is one of the very best writers writing in English today, but there is something amiss here. It's almost as though he felt he had to write this book. It isn't up to his high standard.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, with the Iron Curtain drawn across the world, eleven-year-old Roland Baines finds his life dramatically altered. Separated from his mother by two thousand miles, he becomes a resident of an unconventional boarding school. Vulnerable and adrift, he becomes the target of his piano teacher, Miss Miriam Cornell, leaving enduring scars and a lingering memory of a love that will endure.
Fast forward to the present, and Roland, now faced with the sudden disappearance of his wife, is left alone to care for their young son. In the shadow of the Chernobyl radiation spreading across Europe, he embarks on a quest for answers, delving deep into his family's history. The journey reveals the complex tapestry of his past, shaping the course of his life. The narrative, penned by a skilled author, unfolds beautifully, offering intriguing insights into Roland's early years in Libya and the dynamics within his dysfunctional boarding school experience. The exploration of his relationship with Alissa, a successful novelist, adds layers of complexity, creating a rich tapestry of life experiences. While the narrative occasionally meanders, it masterfully captures the profound impact of formative years on Roland's character, aspirations, and relationships.
Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for sending a digital ARC in exchange for an honest review.
This simply was not for me, sad as I have enjoyed many of his novels, but I couldn’t get past how awkward and strange it was.
The story of each lifetime is that generational trauma is real; we carry it with us without knowing it, until we do; and when we realize it, kindness and forgiveness and redemption are the way forward. Sometimes this takes decades. The world is not black and white; few people are 100% evil or good; the shades of grey are where we grow the most, where we learn the important lessons of a lifetime. This is a powerful book. It uses tension well as we witness something of a slow-buildup over the decades of the protagonists life and the unfolding of the eponymous "lessons". A profound story that will sit with you even when long finished reading it.
Good story, it feels very intimate at times. Likely to make for an intriguing and thought provoking reading
Thanks to NetGalley and Knopf for access to the title.
Roland comes of age in a boarding school far from the familiar. His encounters with his piano teacher leave him (and the reader) scarred and, somehow, still attached. He carries his scars and their lessons through future relationships.
I loved the historical time frames covered in the book, especially the sense of awe and bewilderment at the Berlin Wall.
Thank you to Netgalley and the publishers for giving me access to the free advanced digital copy of this book.
Another impressive book from Ian McEwan. Loved the character and the development over his life. Thank you to NetGalley and Knopf for allowing me to read it.
Oh my did I struggle with this one after about 100 pages in. For the first 100 pages I was completely enraptured, thinking I might be reading a favorite book. While horrifying, the story of the young man and the piano teacher was enthralling. And I was on board with the first bit when we encounter the young man again as an adult. I wanted this to be more of a character study, and the first chunk led me to feel that's what I was getting. Unfortunately, I never got pulled into the explorations of the culture of the past half century, and that became increasingly the focus of the novel. I guess I prefer my McEwan to be concise and cutting.
Thank. you to netgalley and the publisher for the arc!
Decent read. Enjoyed the characters. Character development is an important feature which was good.
Lessons is a historical fiction that follows Roland Baines life over 70 years, beginning from the 1950s and spanning into present day in the 2020s. Having experienced trauma throughout his life, the novel explores how these events have shaped Baines’s character, choices, and relationships against the backdrop of historical events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Chernobyl disaster, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the current COVID-19 pandemic. Lessons is a profound and rich story that explores the novel’s title in depth about what lessons we learn from.
Thank you to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for my honest review.
For a book titled "Lessons", this one surely has a lot of pages that serve as a sore reminder of forgetting one lesson - that of brevity, it could have benefitted from. The latter clearly missing from an overlong, circuitous and meandering tale of one man, and one woman, and another woman, and of the Second World War, and of British Politics, and of the Chernobyl disaster as seen from the eyes of the British public, and of another woman...
Seriously though, the story of Roland Baines is told in overlapping, criss-crossing and dense prose that more likely resembles the mind of the septuagenarian Roland than it does the work of a prolific and much-lauded, award-winning author.
There are many absolutely gorgeous parts that shine ever so brightly, leaving you breathless and wanting for more, and before you can catch your breath (!), suddenly the narrative shifts and you're decades in the past, and Roland is much younger. Many times, the story has these rather sudden shifts that you'd miss if you're not looking out for them - in one line Roland is talking to a Detective Inspector about his missing wife who has abandoned her husband and seven-month baby Lawrence, while in the next line - without so much as a line break - the story punches through time and years, and you find yourself listening to Roland's father, Captain Robert Baines, a distant and cold father to Roland while Roland's mother carries on a melancholy that Roland sees but is only able to understand years (and hundreds of pages!) later.
Without going into spoilers (in all fairness, that term shouldn't apply to this story - but to give credit where it's due), there are elements of family and extended family and relationships that are explored in tender poignancy, while Roland - in all his blithering naivety - struggles to give meaning and do justice to the book's title by collecting life lessons from events that happen all around him, sometimes to him too, but often he is just a bystander. A rather appropriately depicted incident in the beginning of the book shows Roland and his father witness a traffic accident, and the way Roland interacts with the events, how and what he chooses to retain in his memories from that day depicts an image that kept coming back to me, and in fact came back to Roland as well more than once in the course of the book - an image of really a bystander, but one who is simply unable to discern the separation between him and the events surrounding him, and instead goes on to make impressions and later-in-life-recollections that make for some impossibly large and imaginary influences on his thoughts, character, personality - while he doesn't really have any deed of his own to show for all that learning.
Towards the end, talking to another character, he is reminded "Nothing Matters", and even then all Roland chooses to hear and think about is something else that's said just prior to that rather disdainful and yet quite obviously painful declaration.
There is a long section on his mother-in-law, and her escapades during WW2, with a generous sprinkling of the legend of The White Rose, and just like in many other sections, there is repeated and I felt rather gratuitous use of names of real historical figures - most of which added nothing to Roland's story.
The explosive start of the story - with Roland's piano teacher show promise in the beginning, but even there the actual decision to end things - when it comes, is rather abrupt, and bewilderingly easy and quick. For someone as manipulative and controlling, the letting go seemed oddly misplaced. Similarly, the space given to Roland's wife - Alyssa's - books is nearly impossible to justify. There is a lot of effort put in by Mr. McEwan in coming up with this meta aspect of the novel, by putting in complete storylines, plots, reviews and even excerpts of Alyssa's books - that, again, add hardly anything to Roland's narrative.
All in all, a disappointing tale that, while clearly has flashes of brilliance, eventually suffers from a few lessons too many!
As I’ve enjoyed other books by McEwan, I was deeply disappointed that I found it difficult here to get fully engaged with the story and struggled to finish it. I’m not sure why I never felt any type of connection, perhaps it was just too long. Or it felt that way.
When readers meet Roland Baines, the protagonist of Lessons, his wife has just left him with their baby right as the Chernobyl disaster is unfolding. This is not the first woman who has wronged Roland. In the process of grieving what he has lost, Roland reflects on his childhood. Born in Tripoli to British parents stationed there after World War II, he is sent at a young age to boarding school in England, where he is seduced and taken advantage of at the age of fourteen by his young piano teacher. Convinced that the world is about to end during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Roland finds himself ensnared in a relationship that destroys his school life and charts him on a nonlinear path. As he grows, Roland lives through a span of extraordinary events but never does much with his life, bouncing from one thing to the next, raising his son, getting by. He has opinions on the world, but is mostly a passive observer, which can sometimes be a bit dry. Although McEwan’s quality of writing is superb, I thought that he was trying to do too much with this book, which spanned not just the 20th century but also through the pandemic. The central drama of the plot, the inappropriate relationship with the piano teacher, felt simultaneously important and unnecessary to the larger story. I kept waiting for McEwan to connect the dots between this event and the rest of his life in a more cohesive way, but it never arrived. Instead, Roland appears to be a man who is the victim of various women - his mother’s absence, the piano teacher, his ex-wife - and unable to get out of a rut to live anything more than a mundane existence.
In this rather traditionally (but expertly so) rendered narrative, McEwan remixes parts of his own life experiences to ponder what influences a person's development and destiny throughout their lives. Main character Roland is a drifter whose life has been impacted by the decisions of two women: For one, there is his piano teacher, who starts sexually abusing him when he is 14 - for the rest of his life, Roland is not able to clearly categorize this experience. Then, there is his first wife Alissa, the mother of his son, who leaves him and the 7-month-old infant behind to fulfill her ambition to become a writer. Still, these traumatic events do not fully define Roland; rather, he is often torn between using his agency and letting things slide, trying to get by as a pianist, a tennis coach or a poet. Overall, McEwan shows the life of a more or less ordinary man who stumbles through life while being impacted by personal tragedies and also, to some degree, historic events that reverberate in his direct surroundings.
These connections between the personal and the political are played out regarding all characters in the family: Roland's father works for the military, he spends his first years in Singapore and Libya; Alissa's father was connected to the Nazi resistance group Weiße Rose; both men treat their wives badly. The son is born in 1986, the year of Chernobyl; Roland is in Berlin in 1989 when the wall comes down. Twice, Roland is confronted with police investigations: First, he is suspected to be connected to the disappearance of his first wife; then, he is (rightfully) suspected to be the victim of sexual abuse by his piano teacher.
McEwan has written an epic story, his longest novel yet, and it really takes a careful and patient reader to follow him through this elaborate, detailed panorama. Of course, it is extremely well written, and to illuminate the life lines of an average person is the whole point, but I was not the perfect match as a reader: I was longing for a little more drive, more concise writing.
Nevertheless, Ian McEwan is clearly one of the best British writers working today.
I could not finish enough of this book to be able to leave a comprehensive review, but I hope it finds its audience and I am grateful to NetGalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read an advance copy.
I liked this book because it kept me engaged. I could understand Roland’s confusion when he had the interlude with his piano teacher, and the difficulty caring for an infant when his wife left him. Twice rejected , he does finally seem to come to grips with his life and moves on.
Unfortunately, I abandoned this book after 60% and several months.
I enjoyed the beginning, the main character’s childhood and school days, I had also been enjoying the mystery of where the main character’s wife is… until it seems to be resolved too abruptly.
However, as the book progressed it really got bogged down in history and politics and I found the Germany parts to be tedious. The jumping around in time also got a little confusing.
Perhaps if it had been shorter, I would have finished this book – I’ve enjoyed many Ian McEwan novels and was enjoying parts of this one – but my reading time is too short and too precious.