Member Reviews

I’ve wanted to read a book by Ian McEwan for so long and I’m not sure LESSONS is quite the right place to start. (Or perhaps I ought to give more credit to movie adaptations than I have in the past.) The plot, a man’s experience of the last 75 years or so as a backdrop to a life filled with ambivalent loss, seemed interesting. The problem was that the writing style and the character were both distant, they placed the reader so far from the center of activity that the book just felt flat and the main character, AWOL. Perhaps that was the writer’s point, but it made for a slog of a read. I found it difficult to concentrate on the book and wished it was more compelling. I received my copy from the publisher through NetGalley.

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Eleven-year-old Roland Baines’ life changes dramatically when his Africa based parents decide to send him back to England to attend a boarding school and get the classic education. While the political landscape forms itself after the Second World War, the boy takes piano lessons with Miss Cornell who will shape not only his idea of music, she will become his first love. Incidentally or initiated by fate, Roland’s life will remain closely connected to global events, be it the cloud coming from Chernobyl, the beginning and end of the Cold War, or major crises such as AIDS and the pandemic. As we travel through his life, he has to learn some lessons, some taken light-heartedly, others a lot harder and leaving scars.

I have been a huge fan of Ian McEwan’s novel for years and accordingly, I was keen to open his latest novel “Lessons”. What I have always appreciate most in his books is his carefully crafted characters who – hit by events outside their control – need to cope and to adjust. He is a wonderful narrator who easily makes you sink into the plot and forget everything around you. Even though “Lessons” does not focus that much on a single question as in “The Children Act” or “Saturday” and was much longer than most of his former writings, I hugely enjoyed how his protagonist’s character unfolds in front of us and becomes who he is when his life closes.

The novel has been announced as “a chronicle of out times” and admittedly, that’s just what it is. By the example of Roland, he illustrates the last six decades, he chronicles British and European politics, arts, music and mind-set. Roland’s process of learning does not stop, life is a continuous process of trial and error, of mistakes and good decisions which all leave their mark.

Interestingly, the protagonist is a rather passive character. He only ever reacts to what happens, his piano teacher’s advances, his wife’s running away, his career: Roland does not actively shape his life, it is the first and foremost the women he encounters who make him move and – even though they all remain minor characters – it’s them who bring the verve and dynamics into the action.

I can imagine that some readers will find the novel a bit slow and lacking focus, yet, I totally adored it and enjoyed every minute of the read.

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A wonderful journey through our protagonist Roland's childhood, and back again. This tale brings us to post-world war 2 Britain, following Roland as he is enrolled in school and throughout his life, as he experiences different trials and tribulations. Not an especial thriller, this book somehow still engages and keeps your attention with the family scandals and problems which plague Roland his whole life. A struggle of sorts, Roland and son still manage to make the best of their situations and persevere. A very British tale if there ever was one. At times sad, hilarious, engaging, and disturbing, the book spans every genre all at once, and in such a way that it seems as though it fits into none of the categories. A masterpiece of sorts, I would highly recommend this piece of literature to anyone who has previously read and enjoyed McEwan's work, but also anyone who wants to experience a life in the way that only this book has yet brought to life for me.

This ebook was provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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"Lessons” – Ian McEwan

My thanks to @netgalley and @knopfdoubleday for sending me an ARC in return for an honest review.

“Lessons” tells the story of Roland Baines, a man who seems loosely based on the author himself, or at least certain aspects of his life. The book charts his life from a childhood in 40s Libya and various boarding schools, through various failed career opportunities and one failed marriage, right through to the present day. McEwan blends the mundane and every day with the major world events of the day, starting with the Cuban Missile Crisis leading to teenage Baines making a decision that leads to his life irreparably changing (there’s a TW here – message me if you would like to know). At times these confluences felt a little forced in order for McEwan to make a point, not least an episode at the Berlin Wall, but as the book is loosely autobiographical, maybe it actually happened? Can’t be sure.

I wouldn’t say I’m a McEwan fan, even though I’ve read nearly all of his books, but I really enjoyed this – it’s up there with “Atonement” and “Enduring Love” in terms of his body of work. I’m going to make an odd comparison to John Williams's “Stoner”, in that both books made me care greatly about flawed, fairly ordinary men, more than I thought I could. At this stage, McEwan is a prose master, sentences just flow effortlessly, and you’re taken along for a ride where memory meets regret, of characters broken and rebuilt by both their choices and events out of their control, of control and freedom.

You’ll laugh (there’s a little dig at the Booker that might have cost him a longlisting haha), you’ll cry, you’ll get angry, you'll be at peace. A slow rollercoaster of a book and one that I recommend even, or especially, if you’ve been left nonplussed by McEwan in the past.

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I should have stopped reading this after the first 50 pages. The book has way too much description and not a lot of plot. The characters are unlikable. Plus the book spans way too many years and the jump between times always left me confused. It felt like McEwan's editor did nothing and the result was a disappointing mess

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There were many moments in reading this book when I thought "Where is the editor? Where is this going? This rambles all over the place!" and felt it didn't reflect the usual precision I expect from Ian McEwan. However, by the end, he'd gotten me. Yes, it meanders a bit, but I can't remember another more honest reflection of a human Life in a work of fiction. There were parts I felt he slipped over too quickly (more of the Daphne years, please!), but then I think life kind of accelerates as you get older, and those matters of youth (e.g., college years or here: Miriam) have outsized impact and feel much larger than the brief years in which they occur. The book sort of started as one thing - a campus novel - and ended as a reflection on a life sometimes well lived, and sometimes not, but in the end filled with love. I'll be thinking about Roland for a long time.

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Roland's wife Alissa has left him-and their baby son Lawrence- and his world is turned sideways. This epic tale of his life moves back and forth in time (a lot) to tell not only his story but that of Alissa, his parents, her parents, and other players in his life. He's sent from Libya, where his father was serving in the British army, to a boarding school in the early 1960s and it's there that much of his life outlook is formed, especially after he is groomed and inappropriately used by his piano teacher (there's rather more of this than I needed to read). He has a fascinated with the GDR and spends time there but he meets Alissa, who is half German half Brit, when he takes a language class from her. Her mother's diaries influence both of them. There are parts of this novel that are wonderful and which kept me reading when I thought I'd had enough of Roland, who I found immensely unlikeable after initially being sympathetic. It's the small portraits that shine more than the whole, I think. While others might find this a page turner, I found it took patience because it's just so....Thanks to o one, not a one is happy. Netgalley for the ARC. For fans of literary fiction looking for a big book.

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I have read several of McEwan's books, and in my opinion he is on a downward parabola. It's also to be said that I haven't read his early books, basically the ones in the last 10 years, and for me they have been getting worse. This last one then is written in such a long-winded and boring way that more than once I despaired of being able to finish it. Clearly I am not a literary scholar let alone a literary critic, but since I received the ARC for this book I can take it upon myself to say that I will not miss it and that maybe it may even be time for me to take a break from this author.

Ho letto parecchi libri di McEwan e secondo me é in una parabola discendente. C'é anche da dire che non ho letto i suoi libri iniziali, fondamentalmente quelli degli ultimi 10 anni e per me sono andati peggiorando. Quest'ultimo poi é scritto in modo talmente prolisso e noioso che piú di una volta ho disperato di riuscire a finirlo. Chiaramente io non sono una letterata e tantomeno un critica letteraria, ma siccome ho ricevuto l'ARC di questo libro posso prendermi la responsabilitá di dire che non mi mancherá e che magari sará anche arrivato il momento che io mi prenda una pausa da questo autore.

I received from the Publisher a complimentary digital advanced review copy of the book in exchange for a honest review.

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A massive new novel from the acclaimed author Ian McEwan. The story follows the life of Roland Baines through several decades as world history parallelly unfolds right from the 1950's upto 2020. Brilliantly the author weaves various life changing events in Roland's existence with significant historical happenings like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the fall of the Berlin Wall, from Brexit to the Covid-19 pandemic. The title Lessons probably refers to the various lessons learnt in life or the piano lessons in the beginning part of the story which culminate in an affair between Roland and his piano teacher that leaves life long scars. No spoilers here since this is revealed in the book blurb as well as very early in the novel.

All in all, an epic journey through the life and times of Roland Baines. Its a story of coming of age, middle life crises, forbidden love, loss, compromise, the generation gap, career sacrifices, incompatible marriages -you name it, the author has dealt with it, No wonder the book is a massive tome running into 500+ pages. There are portions where one is moved by the beauty of the prose and portions where the endless meandering just make you just want to give up and go. I have to admit that it was as struggle keeping on till the end but I did that out of respect for the author's earlier works. I suspect the book is a bit biographical and will definitely resonate better with people who grew up in the 1960's. I wonder if a second reading may help me to absorb the storyline better. I am left with lingering mixed feelings about this one.

Thank you Net Galley, Random House and Ian McEwan for the ARC

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A new Ian McEwan book always feels like an event. He has written many of my favorite novels and his words often seem like magic on the page. Lessons covers a huge amount of time and historical events, from WWII to the present day and the pandemic. I enjoyed reading about the relationships in the book, but the story itself felt tedious and longwinded. I alternated between the print and audio versions and found myself struggling to keep up with what was going on at times. This one did not work for me, but kudos to the beautiful cover art.

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group and NetGalley for this ARC.

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Lessons is just not for me. I spent the entire book trying to figure out a storyline. I didn’t understand the political nuances. The flashbacks were sporadic and messed with my flow. I felt like I was back in Brit Lit and struggling. Thank goodness I don’t have to write a paper on the theme!

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DNF at 14%. I have no interest in reading about a young boy being inappropriately touched by his piano teacher. I could have probably gotten past it if it was just a brief mention in the beginning of the book, but at 14% when it comes up again and with more detail, I knew this book wasn’t for me.

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This novel chronicles the life of Roland who, like the author, was born in 1948 and spent his childhood in Libya before going to a boarding school in England. By creating a character who lived through the exact same period in time as himself, the author is able to chronicle all of the major social and political events of his own lifetime. There isn’t a very substantial plot. Roland’s wife has disappeared, which gives him time to reflect on his life up to that point. Most of the exposition, though, is historical context. It felt to me like reading a newspaper about world events that I had no idea about. It might be of more interest to someone who is a) 70 years old, b) from the UK, and c) a history buff. My own eyes started to glaze over at 25% and I decided to DNF. It would take me months to read this book, and most of it wouldn’t mean anything to me. I am not the audience for this book.

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DNF at 24%.

This book is just not for me. This is my first from the author and I've heard good things, but I was struggling. This book is LONG and when I found myself not wanting to pick it up I knew it wasn't right for me right now. I had a hard time following the stories and the characters to really know what was going on. It covers a large amount of time that didn't help things.

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I was so excited to read this new book by Ian McEwan because I absolutely loved Atonement. Unfortunately, Lessons was extremely slow for me and hard to really get into. I feel like the writing style just didn't flow easily, making it hard to connect to the story itself.

I really wanted to love this, and I do appreciate the theme the author was trying to convey on how events can shape a persons outlook and world, both presently and in the future, but it just ended up being too slow of a read for me, making it hard to finish.

Thank you to NetGalley for the digital ARC for my honest review.

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Immaculate prose. A wise, sardonic roll call of modern history. But all wrapped in a dull and endless plot featuring a man with little special about him. Intentionally so, but that didn’t make Roland any more palatable. Read it for the background and the connective tissues. Not for the fore-story.

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I have an uneven history with Ian McEwan, who I think is an interesting and sometimes masterful writer - Atonement is one of my favorite novels, and I've liked some of his other work, not some of the other books - and I've been uninterested in his last few books. This one, though, sounded like a return to form. Unfortunately, I found it incredibly slow and hard to get into and quite disappointing. McEwan's writing here is so meandering, straying into long rambling blocks of political thought and historical recaps, rather than much depth about the main character, Roland Baines, even as McEwan touches on plotpoints and themes of his life. There are chapters or even just scenes when it picks up and gets interesting - more depth, engaging, focused - especially the last act of the book when Roland starts resolving some threads of his life. Ultimately, though, it still felt far too scattered and spread out, and really in need of more editing to focus the book and the writing. It just felt like throwing everything in - including many details from McEwan's own life, and what felt like every political idea and historical event over seventy years - without a true through-line and plot/point.

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This book could be described as an introspective journey through one man’s life over 60 years.

The novel begins in 1986 when Roland Baines is 37 years old. His wife Alissa has just left him and their seven-month-old son Lawrence to pursue a writing career. This abandonment, which forces him into single parenthood, starts him thinking about his thereto restless, “shapeless existence” and what has caused him to live so aimlessly. Since abruptly ending his formal education at 16, he has been adrift; after a decade spent travelling around the world while engaged in less than meaningful relationships, he married but lacks steady employment. The novel shows Roland trying to understand himself and come to terms with his past while struggling through life, sometimes successfully and sometimes less so, and trying to learn its lessons.

The book examines how formative experiences and global events shape people’s lives: Roland “reflected on the events and accidents personal and global, minuscule and momentous that had formed and determined his existence.” Roland’s experiences as a child and teenager seem to have left him living much of his life with the hope that “What he once had, he had to have again.” For instance, a “rapturous week” of unfettered freedom and play as a child has left him with “a notion of impossible freedom and adventure [which] still spoiled him for the present” and a feeling that “His real life, the boundless life, was elsewhere.” As a result, he rejected opportunities and avoided commitments and salaried employment “to remain at large” and be available for the next adventure. His boarding school experience has also impacted his life. At the age of 11, he was dropped off at a boarding school in England while his parents removed themselves physically and emotionally by returning to Libya. He attracts the attentions of Miriam Cornell, a piano teacher, whose relationship with him “rewired [his] brain.” He concludes that he has drifted “through an unchosen life, in a succession of reactions to events. He had never made an important decision.”

Of course, others too are impacted by formative experiences. Alissa believes her life was scarred by a childhood spent around her mother’s sense of failure and bitterness so she takes decisive steps not to lead her mother’s “second-rate life.” Though not aware of his mother’s past until much later, Roland learns that her life had been framed by a “distant sorrow that hung about her and what she grieved for.”

Global events can also be traumatic, and Roland’s personal life is set against the Cuban Missile Crisis, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Chernobyl, the 9/11 attacks, Brexit, and the COVID pandemic. These events over which he has no control all impact his life and influence his behaviour. The possibility of annihilation during the Cuban missile crisis, for instance, motivates Roland to lose his virginity while the possibility of radiation from Chernobyl has him taking extra precautions to protect himself and Lawrence. And the reader is told about Alissa’s mother and Roland’s parents whose lives show that “Nothing forces public events on private lives like a war.”

The novel also examines whether it is possible to fulfill fully our needs and desires without hurting others. Roland attends a lecture on the topic of the ruthlessness of artists, the presenter asking whether we should “forgive or ignore their single-mindedness or cruelty in the service of their art” or “Whether cruel behaviour enabled great or execrable poetry made no difference. A cruel act remained just that.” Alissa abandons her husband and son to become a writer. Though her novels are lauded, her choices affect others: “If [Alissa’s mother] had harmed her daughter, what of the harm that daughter had done her son?” Should she be forgiven? And if she were a man, would she be condemned so harshly? Certainly Alissa’s fate at the end versus Roland’s is thought-provoking.
Roland is not always a likeable character. At times, he seems full of self-pity as he considers the roads not taken. He does redeem himself, however, because he does experience personal growth. Though “he thought that he hadn’t learned a thing in life and he never would,” he does become more generous in his views and sees that “They were all doing their best to get by with what they had.” Though he understands that “our beginnings shape us and must be faced,” he also knows that he should be grateful because “The accidental fortune was beyond calculation to have been born” when and where he was. Perhaps the most important lesson is that we “must go on trying to understand . . . and it would never end.”

This is a dense book and there is much in it, much more than I can discuss here. The one part I did not enjoy is the discussions of British politics, though, admittedly, my ignorance of that topic affected my enjoyment of those sections. The discussion of the White Rose movement in Germany became tedious, though I do admit to doing some further research because I wasn’t aware of that resistance group.

This is not my favourite McEwan novel, but I certainly recommend it to fans of his work. I will certainly continue to read his books and, should time allow, probably re-read this one.

Note: I received a digital galley from the publisher via NetGalley.

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Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement was a literary success and a book that was made into a movie. A new novel by this author will make his readers eager to see what he has accomplished now.

This title is not an easy read in my opinion. But, it does take on so much of the world out there along with the events that shape people’s own smaller worlds. Here we have Chernobyl with its nuclear fallout and a main character whose own life is deeply impacted by a fallout of a different kind.

Ian McEwan is an author who takes on epic issues of many years of history as well as the life of a man who lived through these events. I think that it takes someone of his talents to attempt this. Readers will follow Roland’s life and acknowledge the fullness of existence.

Many thanks to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group and NetGalley for this title. All opinions are my own.

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Lessons by Ian McEwan centers on a man by the name of Roland Baines. We follow Roland through his life: his major romantic relationships, his various familial relationships amidst the backdrop of various historical events, World War II, the Suez Canal, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Chernobyl, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the recent pandemic.

First of all, I would like to mention how much I respect Ian McEwan, and no part of this review is easy. McEwan’s name carries some serious weight in literary circles (my circles), and Atonement is on the list of 100 Books To Read Before You Die According to the BBC. Criticizing this literary legend doesn’t bring me any joy. My words feel like footsteps, echoing in the halls of greatness.

So, shall we rip the band aid off?

The writing style of this book is archaic. For example, the formatting of this book just does not work. The paragraphs are gigantic, huge, page-long paragraphs. Short-term memory only lasts between 15 and 30 seconds. However, these paragraphs are so long that you can’t even remember the beginning of the paragraphs.

Lessons is very character driven versus plot driven, and I don’t connect with character-driven books. Additionally, the book flows as a general stream-of-consciousness. There are chapters in the book; however, they are not labeled with a word.

The best illustration that I can give you is if you watch YouTube videos. In the first video, the person is what we call a “talking head.” This person just says anything that comes into their head. After a few minutes, you don’t feel like you are missing anything, and you click off. In the second video, you watch “8 Reasons The Lost Apothecary Disappointed.” You watch the video all the way to the end because you don’t want to miss out on the last reason.

McEwan should have better organized this book. Also, he went far, far too broad in this book. He tried to cover so many relationships, so many historical events. He went wide instead of deep. Lessons would have been better if he had focused on one historical event and perhaps one relationship. I found it very difficult to really connect with the many different characters.

Personally, I didn’t like Roland Baines. He was boring. He might have been interesting, but McEwan tries to cover so many years in this book that he didn’t go deep enough. Roland reminds me of Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye because some horrible things have happened to him in his life; however, he doesn’t adjust well to the losses.

The topic of aging is important and relevant. This is coming from someone who rubs her face twice a day with a jade stone in the hopes that my chin will somehow appear 20 years younger. Roland is very flat emotionally, and I wasn’t moved by him.

Further, if I was the editor of this book, I would have suggested McEwan rewrite it in the first person. I wanted to feel the emotions of Roland, what he felt in those moments. Instead, this was told in a very detached, cold way, almost like the events happened a long time ago. They don’t have that urgency, that sense of excitement, the sense of living in the moment with that character.

Additionally, this book did not feel very original. Without spoiling anything, there was a book which came out not too long ago, discussing the main topic of this book, and it was far superior.

Mr. McEwan – I would be happy to read any of your work in the future and provide feedback. My door is always open to you.

*Thanks, NetGalley, for a free copy of this book in exchange for my fair and honest opinion.

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