Cover Image: Lessons


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Member Reviews

I finished this book a couple of weeks ago but have waited before writing this review to see if my overall thoughts about it changed.

As you'd expect from Ian McEwan it is well-written, well-plotted and stays with you long after reading. It is centred around the life of Roland Baines, whose life is forever marked with his early experiences of abuse and lived against a backdrop of the events of the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st.

I admire the novel, but found it quite bleak reading - hence 4 rather than 5 stars. We do seem to live in bleak times and perhaps McEwan is only reflecting this. However I feel I need to see some sparks of hope and joy which for me were missing here.

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Ian McEwan's latest sprawling and ambitious epic has strongly autobiographical elements, such as his childhood spent in Libya, a story that focuses on Roland Baines through the decades of a life intertwined with and shaped by the background of global and national history right up to the present. The challenges of growing up in this period of history, going back and forth in time, trying to make sense of life and the world, the ageing process, and lessons offered are illuminated through Roland, separated from his blended family for good when he is sent to boarding school when he is 11 years of age. Few can get through life without scars, and in this Roland is no different, his dysfunctional family is marked by its lies, secrets, deceptions and silence, how will single father, Roland, fare in bringing up his baby son, Lawrence, when his wife, Alissa, walks out on them, sacrificing them at the altar of what will be a hugely acclaimed writing career?

Alissa, and his piano teacher, Miriam, both of whom might be seen as extreme versions of womanhood, are to have everlasting effects on his life, irrespective of their absence. Miriam extracts a heavy price for the lessons she offers as the world teeters during the Cuban Missile Crisis, leading to emotional damage and his truncated education. This he endeavours to address, by becoming an autodidact, reading widely, including Joseph Conrad and Robert Lowell, and it is through choosing to learn German that he first meets Alissa. With the potential of become a gifted concert pianist, all this is lost as he shifts aimlessly through life and careers, intent on living, taking drugs, travelling, serial monogamy, plagued by a past that leaves him with a fear of FOMO of what's round the corner and the future. This leaves him ill prepared and unwilling to make choices based on what is happening in the present. There is little Roland can do as he watches Lawrence grow up and echo many of the patterns of his own life. As he ages, becomes politically disillusioned, Roland begins a journal and finally makes the decision to ask Daphne to marry him, a lesson finally learnt.

McEwan compares the life of Alissa with her dazzling career, but lived entirely alone, with the mediocrity and failures of Roland's life, but rich with the circles of growing family, friends and ex-lovers. This is a beautifully stitched together narrative of global history and the intimate, the personal, of politics and culture, growing older, family, and trying to make sense of who we are, and the times we live in, shot through with some light, grace, forgiveness and hope amidst so much bleakness. It is hard to remove the more unpalatable aspects and lessons of life when, as seen here, they are so inextricably woven in with the good, such as the birth of Lawrence. This is likely to resonate with many readers, and what makes this a great read for me is that since I finished, I cannot stop thinking about it, with other thoughts continually interrupting my daily life. I can see myself remembering and reflecting on this novel for some time to come. On a final note, this was a difficult review for me to write because there was so much I wanted to say, but I forced myself to stay brief, such as the White Rose movement in Germany and so much more, in the hope that readers will be intrigued by the snippets offered here. Highly recommended. Many thanks to the publisher for an ARC.

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Life happens. It sears its brand into our skin and we can’t ignore its legacy. We choose our way or are buffeted about by the storms of life–and by love, that relentless tyrant that enslaves us. Every generation is captive by the times with its wars and conflicts, the threats to health and life. We are always wrestling with ourselves and with the world.

As a teen, I resented the intrusion of the world into my life, complicating the process of growing up with war and rebellion, social upheaval. I became pregnant during a time of hope only to despair when wars and collapsing towers and school shootings bookended my son’s childhood.

Still, I was lucky. I was never victim, was given freedom to chose between love and dreams and was content with my decision.

Lessons by Ian McEwan is a remarkable novel. Disturbing, yes. Long, yes. Beautifully written, yes. It has left a lasting impression on me with it’s immersive story and panoramic view of history and insight into how we fail and how we endure.

It’s the story of a man’s life spanning from the Suez Canal Crisis to the Bay of Pigs to the Covid pandemic, the relentless march of history deeply intertwined into his story. As it was in his parent’s lives, and his wife’s parent’s lives, taking us back to WWII. Every time the world seems to correct itself, advancing to a fabled golden age, our dark angles push us back into fear and division.

The novel begins when Roland and his seven-month-old son are abandoned by his wife who chooses a career as a writer over love and family. Their love affair had been intense, an addictive relationship that Roland had been seeking to recreate since he was a child, groomed and sexually abused at school by his piano teacher. He was sixteen when she proposed they marry, and when he rebelled, she sent him packing, warning he would spend his life seeking what they had.

The once promising child, who could have been a concert pianist, never finishes his education. He wastes his youth and talent, settles for survival, flees a healthy relationship until nearly too late. And, in his golden years, discovers a deep love in the form of a child.

I am seventy this year. I think a lot about my life and its choices, and for the first time I fear the end of this body and being in this world. My old optimism that the world always rights itself again is fraying. I morn the destruction of this planet. The novel spoke to me.

Roland learns that life turns out right, no matter what our choices. Alissa contributed amazing, lasting, literary masterpieces although she died alone. He accomplished nothing of note, but has a loving son and granddaughter.

The end of the novel finds Roland reading to his granddaughter, considering the deeper meaning. “Do you think the story is trying to tell us something about people?” he asks her. She responds, it’s about cats and dogs, not people. “A shame to ruin a good tale by turning it into a lesson,” he thinks. As she leads him by the hand, he knows he is “passing on to her a damaged world.” But this child with all her innocence offers hope. To Roland, and to us.

I was given a free egalley by the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.

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Lessons….by Ian McEwan, A Review

I have admired Ian McEwan for many years. As his oeuvre continues to grow, I have read much of his work: The Cement Garden, The Child in Time, Atonement, On Chesil Beach.

I was also delighted with the rendering to film of both his Atonement and Chesil Beach. McEwan’s ability to create a story line, yet allow the reader to wander away for periods of back story, worked for me in both of those novels.

But not with this newest one, Lessons. It’s a lengthy story, McEwan often seeming to be “all over the place.” Reviewers are praising the book for its ability to cover large swaths of history. It made me question whether McEwan had taken copious notes while reading about life in East and West Berlin before the wall came down, or having experienced in his own life the pull between one’s choice and another, all of that leaving pain and wonder, but most of all regret.

It is entitled LESSONS, the work being haunted by the main character, Roland Baines, and his continuing obsession with his predatory piano teacher, whose focus is more sex than music, and sex in many forms. This all started when the boy is only eleven, the experience floating in and out of the story, as if those moments in young Roland’s life have cut into his adult choices, and in some ways made him incapable of shaking them off. “Initial sexual adventures controls the rest of one’s life.”

And in truth, there must be lessons there. Roland is unable to break from the physical longing she arouses in him, despite her abrupt changes when she berates him mentally and sometimes physically. (The fellow needed a good shrink then and forever.) McEwan seems to be emphasizing once again the deep and unseen effects that sex has on a child’s movement into adulthood. (Atonement) But certainly the man can write, knows much about European history, and the scourge yet joy of personal relationships. He also slips in those angry or disappointed gods in modern form: Hitler, Nasser, Khrushchev, Kennedy, Gorbachev. Maybe in some ways they shaped McEwan’s life, but also failed to provide his MC Roland with insight into international affairs.

Publishing director, Michal Shavit, who acquired the novel, best describes it: “A universal story of love, acceptance and sacrifice, longing, desire and of harm in childhood and its long-term impact. Set against the most amazing backdrop of world defining events, this is the story of an extraordinary century and an ordinary man grappling with all that it is to be human.” Amen.

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This novel is the story of a boy who we follow into adulthood and then old age. We are witness to the things that happen that shape him forever. It is also the story of a dysfunctional family and the secrets that will affect all the
generations to follow. And lastly, it is the story of molestation and how that affects the child for the rest of his life. So many layers!
This is a book that is not filled with action, but it will hold your attention throughout; wanting to find out what happens next. Mr. McEwan is an excellent writer and I highly recommend this book.

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Ian McEwan is probably my favorite author. I read all he wrote as it came out since his first short stories in the 80s (I was very young then) and I liked everything he wrote with maybe the exception of The Children's Act (I found that one a bit dry). Lessons is a book that demands the reader's undivided attention but will be very rewarding once it's over. It covers a lot of European history of the last century seen through the eyes and life of Roland, the main character. It is a sprawling novel and it takes a master as McEwan to weave together the personal events that mark a single life and the bigger historical events against which that single life is moving without losing the reader. This is the stuff that masterpieces are made of.
Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with a copy of Lessons in exhange for my unbiaised revirew.

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I don't know what it is about Ian McEwan's writing, but I am never able to get into his books. I finished Atonement and didn't see what the fuss was about. I started a couple of others, put them down, and didn't pick them up again. Since I don't have enough time to read everything on my wish list, I've given myself permission to not finish every book I start. When I saw this title available on Net Galley I decided to give McEwan one more try, but it was the same as with his other books.

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Lessons, the latest novel by British author, Ian McEwan, of Atonement fame, traces the tumultuous life of Roland Baines, a would-be poet, political activist, lounge pianist, and single dad, whose wife, Alissa, has abandoned him and their infant son, Lawrence, so she may live an unfettered life as a novelist. The book has ambitious scope, covering seventy years of global change and tumult, from WWII to the Cuban Missile Crisis, to Chernobyl to the fall of the Berlin Wall to the present-day COVID epidemic. Roland, a anti-hero without any noteworthy characteristics, is an ordinary, even aimless soul looking for love, but who is seemingly unable to sustain deep, meaningful relationships. Arguably, his restlessness, psychological turmoil, and relationship issues, in large part, stem from a dark secret that has haunted him since boyhood. As a boy of 11, beguiled by his attractive piano teacher, Miriam Cornell, Roland experiences sexual grooming at the hands of his his teacher. Eventually, she seduces and sexually initiates him at age 15. Roland, due to his naivete and youth, experiences complicated feelings about his affair with Miriam. While he is sexually attracted to her, flattered at her attentions, and believes their relationship is consensual, a part of him, even from the first moment she places her hand on his thigh, understands the wrongness of the situation, and the ever-building negative consequences of their illicit relationship. When Miriam, after a period of imprisoning Roland in her house, proposes marriage to him, a mere 16 year old, Roland breaks off the abusive relationship, and runs: away from Miriam, but also away from the academic second-chance offered to him by the headmaster of his boarding school. The resulting trauma of his abusive, toxic relationship with Miriam, as well as his dysfunctional family life, sets the stage for a number of issues that will plague Roland throughout his life: poor romantic choices, sex that’s uncoupled from true intimacy, lack of a stable, satisfying career, fear of commitment and abandonment. Though the aforementioned material makes for grim, sometimes shocking reading, and the pacing sometimes feels slow in parts, McEwan admirably creates a main character who slowly grows into maturity and understanding, and happily, as an older, and wiser man, finally finds fulfillment and love, even in a decidedly imperfect world. Lessons learned.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing an ARC of this novel.

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I really can't review it, I had a very hard time reading this story, my mind wandered & there were times when I considered giving up all together but I kept on. The last maybe 1/4 of the book was the best part- to me.

Based around young Roland starting when he was 11 & sent away to school & ending in his 70's with the last pandemic lock down in England....Difficult moments in the story line which I will not spoil, lots of historical references that I either didn't care about, had forgotten or had no idea what was being discussed.

I don't take issue with flawed characters, aren't we all? I mostly liked Roland but at times I wanted to give him a boot in the butt. There were plenty of flawed characters all around.

I feel I will be in the minority with this book because I generally enjoy reading this author's books. But it was just a struggle for me.

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Oh my…..
…..What an incredible epic reading experience by one of my favorite authors. The length is long — but the journey is worth it.

Roland Baine’s heart and mind was very close to my own.
His voice was the full rainbow of gentleness, confused, vain, proud, fearful, angry, lonely, optimistic, pessimistic, sad, sweet….etc.
His past speaks as much about himself as it does about other people. We can see ourselves in him ….. and 95% of the time I was swept under the spell of McEwan’s writing….his juicy storytelling.
Through deceptions, growing awareness, global history and personal painful experiences….
Ian McEwan Illuminates the struggles and dilemmas a man — and/or women — might face in a lifetime: 70 years to be exact: same age as me: 70.

It took me almost a full month to finish this book. But - be clear — it was my choice to read it slow. It includes so many historical highlights — I needed time to digest them all — radiation from Chernobyl, post WWII affects, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Suez Crisis, the White Rose, the fall of Berlin Wall, 911, poverty, government disappointments, global warming, racism, immigration, Brexit, Covid, etc.
It also includes a compelling mystery - along with some latent family issues - (an interesting tale about his half brother and sister: Henry and Susan), love issues -and moral issues.
Childhood, teen years, sex, marriage, art, music, literature, friendships, illness, desire, ambition, and loyalty….conjuring moments in relatively recent history…..unleashing a collision of universal forces—evoking gritty challenges — and causal heroism of single fatherhood—to son, Lawrence.
“When Roland was in the park he heard two women, who were pushing their pram, walk by use the word ‘emergency’. The country stood together, United in anxiety. The sane impulse was to run.
“His first duty was to get some bottled water home and start to seal the windows. He must continue to keep the world out. It was a twenty minute walk. As Roland took the front door key from his pocket Lawrence woke. For no reason, and the way of all babies, he started to bawl. The trick was to pick him up as soon as possible. It was hot and clumsy work, unfastening the straps, lifting the screaming red-face child, getting the push chair, the water, the flowers, the dust sheets into the house. He was in, and saw it lying on the floor, writing side up, another card from Alissa, her fifth. More words this time. But he left it where it was carrying Lawrence and the shopping towards the kitchen”.

The personal stories sang to my soul.
The connections, friendships, parenting, boyhood, self-doubts, background family history (I especially treasured Roland’ relationship with his mother, Rosalind, when he was a child)….were very relatable. I enjoyed ‘the juiciness’ of many varied tales.
The historical, cultural and political details were > in parts > very interesting > to mildly ‘not so much’. I always wanted to get back to the characters (directly) — their heartbreaks —more than the traumas of the world….(yikes…reveals something about me)….
But overall ….
…..’Lessons’ is outstanding- an ambitious stunning journey— profoundly humane— written in gorgeous prose.
Given that we never really ‘grow up’…yet have to make our way into the world anyway….“Lessons” ends at being thought-provoking, intelligent, wise, sad, and illuminating. Some parts were funny.
McEwan nails both the complexities of childhood and adulthood……
……reflecting, forgiveness- freedom- honor, pain, grief, loneliness , art, music, writing, success, obedience, disobedience, danger, flirtations, love, loss, death… in all the shapes and forms, more marriages- more friendships, more babies, more grandchildren….more life stories for our era.
…….it’s about the long road one must walk between one’s beginning and one’s end…..and all that happens in-between.
The drama, history, a small mystery, romance, friendship, fatherhood.moral quandaries, shame, hope, doubt, and redemption….
“Lessons” is a curl up with a favorite blanket novel….a cuppa tea….(many cups of tea)… relish, learn, and indulge in the spanning story of a man’s life.
A few times I wondered if it needed to be as long as it was — but I think so … as it allows room for our random thoughts— examining good and bad— the nature of humanity, the nature of identity, and whether or not choices are entirely within our control — even when the consequences aren’t.
Life is fragile…..
“Lessons” reflects the tenuous link between who we are — and the world we live in.
Kudos to McEwan…his quest for grace is the pulse of this superb novel.

A few sample excerpts:

“At times there was a mixture the excitement of danger mixed with exaggerated sense of security. There were times that Roland had hours of unsupervised play with his military children chums— A release from his mothers sadness and from his father‘s authority.
Unspoken family problems have a power over Roland as perverse and mysterious as gravity”.

“British students arriving at Heathrow from Minsk we’re radiated to 50 times normal levels. Minsk was 200 miles from the accident. The Polish government was advising against drinking milk or eating dairy products. The radiation leak was first detected by the Swedes 700 miles away. Soviet authorities had passed on no advice about contaminated food or drink to their own people. It could never happen here. It had happened already.
France and Germany had said there can be no harm to the public. But don’t drink the milk”.

“Like awesome Doris Lessing before her, glamorous Alissa Eberhardt made the sort of scary leap many women only dream about. She abandoned baby and husband and high- tailed it into the Bavarian Forest, where she lived on leaves and berries (just joking!) and wrote her famous first novel, ‘The Journey’. The book world pronounced her a genius and she’s never looked back. Her latest, ‘The Running Wounded’, is our Book of the Month. Watch out, Doris”.
“Whenever Roland read Alissa’s work, he looked for the character who embodied some elements of himself. He was prepared to be indignant if he found him. The kind of man her heroine might hole up with for many sensual months. The pianist, tennis player, poet. Even the failed poet, the sexually overdemanding man, the restless unfulfilled man of no settled work that a reasonable woman my tire of. The husband and father that a woman character deserts. What he found instead were, among many others, two versions of the big Swedish sailor with the ponytail, Karl”.

“Whatever he was doing, he was pursued by an idea of a greater freedom elsewhere, some emancipated life just beyond reach, one that would be denied him if he made unbreakable commitments. He missed many chances that way and submitted to periods of prolonged boredom. He was waiting for existence to part like a curtain, for a hand to extend and help him step through into a paradise regained. There his purpose, his delight and friendship and community and the thrill of the unexpected would be bound and resolved. Because he failed to understand or define these expectations until after they had faded in later life, he was vulnerable to their appeal. He did not know what - in the real world - he was waiting for. And the dimensions of the unreal, it was to relive the eight days he spent in the confines of 10
Armored Workshops. REME, at Gurji Camp in the autumn of 1956”.

“It was almost forty years since he saw Miriam. He dreaded what she might have become. He wanted her preserved as she had been.
He did not want a bloated sixty-five-year-old matron down on her luck taking her place.
A policeman was questioning Roland about his first piano teacher. Roland was trying to summon his fourteen year-old self.
Memories came back remembering his Hawaiian shirt unbuttoned almost to the waist— turning up on his bike—

Ian McEwan writes with a vulnerability that is powerful, sensual, angry, passionate and gentle…’s overflowing with value and richness.

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This is a beautifully written story of a life with all its ups and downs. I always appreciated how it want over emotional - almost as if Roland wasn’t fully emotionally developed- probably as a result of the experiences of his youth. It felt true and raw to me. I really enjoyed it!

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I dragged through this book for hours before finally saying “enough.” I expected much more from this famed author, but could not connect with the story or its characters at all.

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The introductory letter that accompanied this book from the publisher hailed it as a “masterpiece“. When I read that I imagined myself sitting by an Olympic ice rink holding a number 10 sign and attempting a golf clap. While the book is a technical masterpiece it just didn’t work for me.

At the beginning of the of the story there is some child abuse and every time I picked up the book the initial revulsion I felt while reading those passages came flooding back. Every. Single. Time.

Maybe I’m just not fancy enough to appreciate the book.

Thanks to @netgalley and @aaknopf for an advanced copy. It will be released on 9/13/22.

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Ian McEwan is one my favorite English novelists. His first four works of fiction in the late 1970s to 1981 were exclusively subjective narratives focused on the inner lives of his characters. That all changed after a gap of six years when he published his fifth work, his third novel, "The Child in Time." In it the private life of the protagonist (who's in search of his childhood) becomes entangled with the British political scene of the 1980s and sits on a government committee on childcare. From this moment onward all of McEwan's novels have situated the personal within the context of the political. "Atonement," my favorite of his novels, parallels the privileged life of Briony, the major character, with the privileged British upper class that leads the country from a delusional pre-war assurance through the horrors of the Dunkirk evacuation to the country's diminished postwar existence.

True to form, Ian McEwan's latest novel, "Lessons" firmly situates the life of its protagonist, Roland Baines against Europe in the final years of the Cold War, his presence during the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, ending with his experiencing the isolating effects of Covid. By now, if anything, the political seems to determine the trajectory of the personal lives of the book's characters. One effect of this emphasis on the pressure that the external world brings to bear on the personal life of Roland is to make things that happen to him feel arbitrary. He starts off in his childhood as a promising classical pianist, progresses to becoming a tennis coach and simultaneously is an aspiring poet. These very different professions fail to cohere in the book's major character, Ultimately the movement towards authoritarianism in world politics leaves Roland feeling that his life has amounted to little of significance.

The book starts so promisingly with Roland's bewildering fantasmagoria of memories and dreams that show McEwan writing at the height of his powers. His memories are of his music teacher at school with whom he has an affair that ends with his renunciation of his music career. Next comes love, marriage , a son, and his wife's sudden departure to become a leading German novelist of her generation. Later he marries again only to face the immediate loss of his new wife. His life seems to be dictated by the lives of others as much as it is by the events of world history. The result is a fractured character, someone who fails to cohere believably. Following Roland is like watching a paper boat being whirled down a river in flood with no power to control what happens to it.

I guess I'm admitting to a sense of disappointment with this novel. It doesn't change my mind about McEwan's stature. He's still a writer I admire for his imagination and ability to use language creatively. Maybe readers should read the novel and decide for themselves how well it works.

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I loved this new book By Ian McEwan as much as all of his other novels. Lessons is an all-encompassing story of Roland Baines's life from childhood in Tripoli to aging in London. Roland started life in overseas locations where his dad was in the military. When Roland got to proper school age, he was forced to attend a government-run boarding school in England. Naturally, his days there were a misery and he missed his much-loved mother and the love only she gave to the young boy.

In this sweeping life novel, McEwan manages, as always, to give us global history and current politics, from the Suez Canal crisis, the Bay of Pigs debacle, and the election of Trump along with a pandemic of COVID. Throughout the setbacks on the world stage, Roland managed to find love and seemed always to have a woman to fulfill his intimacy needs. Roland is at times, likable, and other times pathetic. McEwant manages to give us a story of ourselves, the deep secrets we care not to divulge. I loved this long novel and appreciate McEwan taking me up to current times in the age group I fit into today. I know I sound like a fan girl, but I guess I have always been one when it comes to McEwan novels.

Thank you very much to NetGalley and the publisher for this ARC.

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Lessons, by Ian McEwan, focuses on the life of one main character, Roland. From the time of his childhood through older adulthood the author develops the character revealing how events within his lifetime form his relationships, opinions, actions and reactions. The lessons he learns aid him in surviving the ups and downs of life, in both healthy and unhealthy ways. #Lessons #NetGalley

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Over the years , I’ve had a love/ hate relationship with the author. When good-superb, but also at least for me several “ mehs”.
This I thought a masterpiece. Character driven-the life of Roland Baines, a man of my age, and the events in his life that have shaped him, for good and bad.He uses historical events as the background for his life-the Suez canal crisis, Bay of Pigs, life in East Germany and the fall of the wall, etc . concluding with Brexit and Covid.
It’s long, at times I thought overwritten, but with moments (for someone of the same age) of absolute unbridled joy accompanied by moments and events that bring a tear to the eyes.
I thoroughly enjoyed this read- a book club selection for sure!!!!!

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A sweeping, epic saga that spans multiple generations and delivers a sense of familiarity in its historical narrative and – the essence of the tale – its life lessons. Meticulously written with a level of prose many writers aspire to but seldom reach. McEwan really is a master storyteller.

My thanks to NetGalley and Knopf Doubleday for granting this e-ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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McEwan is one of my favorite authors, and this novel truly stands above his previous works. The characters think and act like such believable humans, I felt almost transported into the novel, only to miss them once I turned the last page on my Kindle and set it down.

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I have enjoyed Ian McEwan's novels in the past and requested this one because of that history. Unfortunately, after many days of reading, I just have been unable to connect with this character and his story and am not finishing this novel.

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