Member Reviews

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Ian McEwan’s latest novel follows Roland Baines through significant events in his life during the second half of the 20th century and the early 21st century: Independence from his relatives, overcoming assault, becoming a father, World War II, Chernobyl’s fallout, and the COVID-19 lockdowns. The exposition of this novel is strong as we are introduced to the setting and characters, including their worries and hopes. We are also introduced to Baines’ perspective of the world and how he seeks to find his place as major events occur around him. The narrative loses its pacing in certain sections with long descriptive overviews of characters introduced later and their circumstances, shifting away entirely from the protagonist’s story. McEwan is a skilled writer and manages to create an ambitious story spanning decades but the pacing and abrupt changes in time periods between chapters sometimes lessens the narrative's impact.

Was this review helpful?

I found Lessons a little difficult to get into, especially in the beginning. I felt the beginning of the book jumped around and was hard to follow. The direction of the book was more clear later in the book. I have read other books by Ian McEwan and his books are deep and involved. Lessons is no exception. Roland Bains did not win my heart. His story covered most major events in the past 70 years which was interesting. I really enjoyed his son and eccentric wife’s storylines more.

Not every book is for everyone and this was not my book. I did finish it but it was not memorable. However, looking at other reviews, people enjoyed Roland’s story. If you have enjoyed other books by Ian McEwan give Lessons a read. #Netgalley #Lessons

Was this review helpful?

Lessons is a complex look at one man's life. It was a tough read, with the sexual abuse between the main character and a teacher. While it was well written, the subject matter kept me from finishing.
Thanks to NetGalley for my review copy.

Was this review helpful?

An epic of twentieth-century life, and one particular twentieth-century life, <i>Lessons</i> is both personal and historical, rich in detail and sprawling in scope. Its intricacy and endurance is a powerful literary achievement.

The story opens on Londoner Roland Baines in his late thirties, newly abandoned by his wife and charged with caring for his infant son in the aftermath of the Chernobyl meltdown. It moves backward to Roland's adolescence at a British boarding school and his life-altering encounter with a charismatic and controlling piano teacher during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Then forward, through Roland's middle years: the aftermath of his wife's departure, the fall of the Berlin Wall. The cast of characters grows to include Roland's friends, lovers, descendants, and even enemies, each individual standing for some element of our evolving twentieth- to twenty-first-century society.

<i>Lessons</i> ranges freely over the course of Roland's life as well as and the lives of his and his wife's parents, exploring nearly one hundred years of political and personal history. It is fascinated with the way world events, even seemingly distant ones, shape individual human lives. Readers with strong historical backgrounds or personal memories of the 1960s-1980s, the epoch most strongly weighted in the book, will probably find the political aspects compelling. But, remembering these events only dimly from history books, I found it hard to become emotionally invested.

Emotional investment is also lacking among the characters. Roland is the main character, but lengthy passages are devoted to his errant wife, his parents, and his mother-in-law - and all with the same steady, precise prose, the same omniscient but distant narrative voice. This voice feels like Roland's voice: intelligent, wry, but also eternally disappointed, and this was a frustration to me. Roland is a depressive character, and his point of view is often depressing. The story, despite surveying Roland's life from childhood to old age, skips over nearly all the happy parts, giving the impression of an existence consisting mostly of failure and disappointment, and a history consisting primarily of war and death.

But Roland's story ends on a positive note, and I want to end this review on one as well. Despite its somber tone, <i>Lessons</i> was a pleasure to read. In the comparison between a big life - one lived for politics and art and fame - and a small one, lived for love and friendship and family, the small life - the life Roland has reluctantly accepted as his lot - wins out.

Was this review helpful?

Ian McEwan’s Lessons is dense with history, I could call it epic, but that doesn’t quite cover it. It’s complicated and frequently uncomfortable to read, but well worth it as the tapestry of one man’s is slowly revealed. Roland Baines is the man through whose eyes we see the world, and though his character is drawn with McEwan’s ability to make his people three dimensional, the complexity of Roland’s life makes for a sometimes cringy read. This is a serious book, Be prepared to take your time with it to fully gain all of the panoply of life in its sorrows and triumphs. Worth it!

Was this review helpful?

I really hoped I could finish the book but truthfully I couldn't get through it. McEwan's prose is wonderful and he has a real talent for creating fictional worlds with his words but this just didn't work for me this time.

The book went so slowly and after hours and hours, I decided I will not continue as I struggled to keep my interest and focus. Perhaps the parts that I haven't managed to read were more interesting but I suppose I will never know.

Was this review helpful?

It took me a long time to read this novel. And at first, I really thought I'd write a bad review. Like several other reviewers, I really enjoyed Atonement, and this book is not the same. It's long, and could use some editing. Although, at the same time, I think McEwan's style for this book was meant to mimic Roland's life, and therefore it needed to meander. There are parts that are quite good, and others that just don't seem necessary.

"Inertia itself was a force." Roland seemed to live by this concept, and both his life and the novel show it. I did think the last 25% or so saved the book.

"When the world is still counting the cost of the Second World War and the Iron Curtain has closed, eleven-year-old Roland Baines's life is turned upside down. Two thousand miles from his mother's protective love, stranded at an unusual boarding school, his vulnerability attracts piano teacher Miss Miriam Cornell, leaving scars as well as a memory of love that will never fade.

Now, when his wife vanishes, leaving him alone with his tiny son, Roland is forced to confront the reality of his restless existence. As the radiation from Chernobyl spreads across Europe, he begins a search for answers that looks deep into his family history and will last for the rest of his life.

Haunted by lost opportunities, Roland seeks solace through every possible means—music, literature, friends, sex, politics, and, finally, love cut tragically short, then love ultimately redeemed. His journey raises important questions for us all. Can we take full charge of the course of our lives without causing damage to others? How do global events beyond our control shape our lives and our memories? And what can we really learn from the traumas of the past?"

Thanks to NetGalley and Knopf Doubleday for the free ARC in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Was this review helpful?

Exquisite. A delight as every book Mr. McEwan pens.
Lessons is a book that spans through generations. A magnificent piece of art. This charming story reads like a memoir, but with the extraordinary prose that only this author can create.

Was this review helpful?

I had high hopes for this book. However, the teacher/student sexual relationship was disgusting and I could no longer keep reading. I don't know how the book ends, so perhaps there will be some redeeming quality that makes up for the fact that a relationship such as the one portrayed in this book is appalling and horrific. I will never know.

Was this review helpful?

An extremely intimate look at one man’s life. This has historical value and such sadness.
Looking at life through someone else’s eyes is a great way to describe Lessons.

Was this review helpful?

I found this to be very slow and could not could into it. The plot never really picked up for me and so I found myself having to push through to finish it. If you’re okay with slow pacing and plots then maybe you’ll enjoy this, particularly if you like Ian McEwan’s other work, but this just wasn’t great for me.
The protagonist, Roland, was interesting enough to carry the story, however I found that the other characters throughout this novel would have been more interesting to read about for me personally.
Not necessarily my favourite, however I wouldn’t advise against it.

Was this review helpful?

I’m a big fan of Ian McEwan’s work, having read a good number of his novels, but I have to confess to being sorely disappointed with lessons, which for the first time in one of his works felt like a slog to get through. Some minor spoilers and a kind-of major one, but the reveal is extremely early in the story. You’ve been warned.
The story focuses on Roland, who is left on his own with a newborn child in the late 1980s when his wife disappears. As he spends the early times being questioned by the police, you might think it’s one kind of story, but McEwan isn’t interested in the mystery and more the motivation and impact. It turns out Alissa left to focus on her dream of being a novelist, something she thought she couldn’t do, at least not to her standards, as a mother and a wife.
The rest of the novel moves both forward and backward in time. We learn of Roland’s unusual upbringing, issues with a domineering (but not clichéd father), and most importantly the long-term event involving his piano teacher at boarding school that affected his entire life. Meanwhile, time marches onward as we see historic event after event—elections, fall of the Berlin Wall, worries over nuclear clouds from Chernobyl, and more. Throughout it Roland tries to navigate between/around the two pivotal events involving women in his life and come to some semblance of a satisfied life.
To begin with the positive, on a sentence level, McEwan remains a master, with a number of gracefully crafted lines and insights. His characters are complex, far too rich to be reduced to “likable” or “unlikable”, “good” or “bad” people. Even Allisa, who can certainly be classified as unlikable for many a reason, is granted some complexity and is also a good example of how men and women are treated different in this world for the same actions.
That said, too much of the novel felt flat to me, more reportage than anything else, and while I get the point about Roland’s meandering life as he drifts through the world and people, it’s a long, long work to follow someone meandering. Far too long for me, especially with so many longer segments of flat prose. I had to push myself forward time and time again, and while the closing segment was the best part, I can’t say it was worth the journey to get there.

Was this review helpful?

Lessons by Ian McEwan is quite a read. It's long, complex & full of historical facts along with a decades long examination of the life of Roland Baines. This epic story is of an ordinary man as he lives through defining moments of history, both the world's and his own personal life. Roland is constantly faced with personal dilemmas while at the same time in the midst of key world events. The book open with the adult Roland returning to dreams of his 11 year old self's first encounter with Miriam Cornell, then quickly switches to the current situation and the fact that his wife, Alissa, had vanished, abandoning her husband & infant son.. The book continues in this style throughout, with the author carefully switching between years and events as his memories take over. There's almost a stream of consciousness approach of taking the reader through Roland's youth in Tunisia and early days at his boarding school through to his mid years as parent & man searching & into his seventies with his older adult relationships. His life defining relationship with Miriam is revisited over and over. The cover of the novel shows a young schoolboy seated at the piano, intent on his playing. The fact the novel is called Lessons refers to a variety of meanings, but clearly it refers in large part to his piano lessons with Miriam as well as how her other "lessons" re-wired his youthful brain. Roland never reaches his certain potential as a accomplished professional pianist, but piano does play a continuing part in his life, even as he becomes a lounge player later in his life. His leaving school at 16, a consequence of Miriam, had major consequences for his future. What a pity as adult Roland was a voracious reader of deep thinking writers such as Joseph Conrad.

Readers who are more the age of the author (74) may find the strongest affinity to the broad range of defining world events from the Suez Canal hostilities, the Cuban missile crisis, the pathos of East Berliners and the Berlin Wall, Chernobyl and many, many references to British politics. However, the events of the decades are still the events, no matter the age of the reader. The point is, the author freely roams between these historical years and situations which may or may not be an easy connection for some readers.

One cannot help but feeling extreme disquiet about the predatory nature of Roland's relationship with Miriam. In a strange mix of truths, they both seem weirdly addicted & codependent even in spite of Roland's young age. His adult relationships also have many problems, the one with additional far reaching consequences is with his wife, Alissa, who desserts the family when their child, Lawrence, is a small infant. Alissa's actions cause great harm to both her husband and child, continuing certain childhood cycles of family dysfunction familiar to both Roland and Alissa. While Roland's father said that "children always get in the way of a marriage," both the child and the marriage itself got in the way for Alissa's writing ambitions. She didn't want to make the same "mistake" as her mother, so both the marriage & the child needed to be abandoned. Even with an extreme situation, Roland loves his son & strives to be a good father. .

Roland is continually experiencing "lessons" throughout his life. What he thinks is important often is not, but it takes his lifetime to discover truths about himself. My favorite character, aside from Roland, is Daphne, the person offering him some long deserved marital happiness.

Many thanks to NetGalley for providing a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

Was this review helpful?

At age 11, Roland Baines is sent from his home to boarding school where his relationship with a piano tutor shapes his entire life. We follow him through the birth of his son, the desertion of his first wife, family relationships and secrets, the deaths of his second wife as well as key family members, and eventually his old age. As his somewhat uninspiring and uneasy life unfolds, McEwan chronicles global political and cultural events and the reader sees how some of them may affect our lives while others occur without touching us.

The adjective that most comes to mind in thinking about this book (and there is a lot to think about) is sprawling. It is at times melancholic, disturbing, reflective, tranquil, hopeful. It also explores the affects of pedophilia on a developing child’s psyche as well as lifelong after effects.

Lessons is a rich, ambitious story; I have only touched upon selected portions in this brief review. There is so much more that is included: the White Rose movement in Nazi Germany, the literary process and what is needed to be successful, the inevitable aging process. It is the journey of an entire generation.

Thanks to #netgalley and Knopf Doubleday for the ARC.

Was this review helpful?

I struggled to finish this book. Even though it was rich with characters, I didn’t enjoy them. The story was too slow, and the drama was lacking. Thank you anyway to NetGalley for this advanced copy.

Was this review helpful?


I really enjoyed the author's past book, Atonement and not because of the movie. The story is complex, complicated and relatable.. However, this newest book I could not get into. The premise seemed like my kind of fiction book, but there was very little happening throughout the story. The plot was also choppy. I really struggled to finish reading this and honestly, I skim read most of it.

Cannot recommend.

Thanks to NetGalley, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group and Ian McEwan for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Available: 9/13/22

Was this review helpful?

*4.5 stars rounded up!

The story of one man's lifetime--from 1948 to the present day--a very introspective and personal tale set in the midst of the broader global events and political upheaval of those years.

Roland Baines's father is a rather domineering military man, the mother fairly meek. They've been stationed in Libya where Roland has had a carefree childhood. But Roland's real life lessons begin at the tender age of eleven when he is brought to England to attend Berners Hall boarding school, 2000 miles away from both mother and home.

Roland's father wants him to have piano lessons and so this is how he happens to fall into the clutches of Miss Miriam Cornell, an attractive though frightening and controlling young piano teacher who recognizes the young boy's vulnerability and proceeds to sexually groom Roland over the next five years. He only manages to decide to break away from her when she proposes marriage when he turns 16. Her behavior is depraved and their relationship, which begins at such a tender age for Roland, definitely distorts his future relations with the women he'll meet in his life.

Roland could have been a concert pianist, he's that talented, but instead he turns to minor jobs to support himself: he plays piano in lounges; he writes poetry; he teaches tennis. One lover calls him 'a restless fool.' He can't seem to settle on anything.

When he falls in love and marries a German girl named Alissa, he soon finds himself abandoned, along with their seven-month-old son. It seems she wants to be not just a writer, but the best writer of their generation, and feels she cannot do that tied down as wife and mother in their cramped home.

This reads like a memoir and it could very well be that the author has drawn on some of his own experiences to create this character and the situations he deals with. Both were born in 1948, as was I. That could be why I relate so well to Roland's life story because I too grew up in the uncertain times depicted: Chernobyl; the Suez Crisis; the Cuban Missile Crisis; the fall of the Berlin Wall and finally ending with the current pandemic.

I have to admit Ian McEwan is one of my favorite authors. This is the eighth book of his that I've read and all have been either 4 or 5 star reads for me. His prose is beautiful; he zeroes in on his characters' humanness, their brokenness, with compassion. This is an epic story but it's very readable and entertaining.

I received an arc of this novel from the author and publisher via NetGalley. My review is voluntary and the opinions expressed are entirely my own.

Was this review helpful?

Ian McEwan is clearly feeling intimations of mortality in this profound novel covering the life of a man who, in some respects, resembles the author.

The pivotal moment (at least in retrospect) of Roland Baines’ life is when he goes to his flirtatious piano teacher’s house during the Cuban Missile Crisis, determined to have sex in case the world is destroyed. Roland is 14 and the tumultuous affair with Miriam Cornell carries on for another 2 years but reverberates through much of the rest of his life.

From this point on, Roland bungles and drifts through life, making what he sees as regrettable choices along the way. He’s there for significant historical global moments - the aftermath of World War II, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Chernobyl, COVID - and significant national events - the rise and fall of Thatcher, the rise and fall of New Labour. But these only provide a backdrop to Roland’s reflections and relationships: with girlfriends, his two wives, and above all else, with his son, Lawrence.

The novel loops through time. Roland’s present, the chronological narrative spine of the novel, seamlessly sparking connecting overlapping memories and giving the perspective of the peaks and troughs of a life.

Roland is hardly an Everyman. He has the privilege of a private education and the English middle class ability to scrape by and muddle through on the meager earnings of a tennis coach, lounge pianist, and minor journalism. As a metropolitan liberal his political views are disconnected from much of the rest of the country but are echoed comfortably in his social circle.

For me, the heart of Roland, and the novel, is his relationship with Lawrence. When his German first wife abandons him, leaving him with the baby, suddenly Roland has a purpose beyond himself which he steps into with grace and success.

There are so many wonderful vignettes in this very long and very English novel. The characters each have their own story and there is no rush to make them concise. Lessons are absorbed rather than learned along the way but not in a didactic or moralizing way - they are simply passively offered to be taken and shared as the characters please.

I was enthralled by the elegant writing and captivated by the slow moving depth of the plot. Highly recommended it if you’re looking for a very particular English (and sometimes German) perspective on the last 70 years.

Thanks to Knopf and Netgalley for the digital review copy.

Was this review helpful?

Lots of drawn-out descriptions of not very interesting things, barely anything happening - a vague, dull story about a boring man. I'd expected it to be livelier or more compelling in its scope but this read like a plodding, joyless experience. I gave up at the 100 page mark - definitely not one of McEwan's better efforts.

Was this review helpful?

This is a very well written and dense novel, with our main character Roland Baines whole life explored against the backdrop of many historical and major events. Ian Mcewan is extremely intelligent and it shows, but I couldn't help being bored at times at the breadth with which some political topics got discussed. I had more interest in Roland's actual life, which had its own tragedies and I would recommend looking at trigger warnings for.
It is a very long and slow story taking place over almost 70 years, with McEwan's beautiful language but that doesn't stop it from dragging at times. The characters are a strong point and feel very real with their flaws.
3.75, rounding up.
Thanks to NetGalley and Knopf Doubleday for the e-ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Was this review helpful?