4 out of 5: Solar, Ian McEwan’s eleventh novel, follows the troubled career and love life of 53-year-old physicist Michael Beard. Beard won the Nobel Prize in physics for work he completed as a young man but, after five failed marriages, is now trapped in a decades-long slump of “no new ideas.” Living the life of an aimless bureaucrat saddled with speech commitments and honorary positions, Beard no longer resembles the “ethereal Beard of planetary renown” he once was: “It sometimes seemed to Beard that he had coasted all his life on an obscure young man’s work, a far cleverer and more devoted theoretical physicist than he could ever hope to be. ... [T]hat twenty-five-year-old physicist was a genius. But where was he now?”
Beard’s story takes a dramatic turn when he discovers a way to revitalize his career as a climate scientist by employing morally questionable tactics. Along the way, Beard’s bumbling antics and social awkwardness provide plenty of humorous set pieces. While laugh-out-loud funny, most of these incidents bear little relation to the primary action of the novel. Additional sidetracks slow the novel’s momentum, including numerous in-depth descriptions of Beard’s work on artificial photosynthesis as a way to save the earth from both global warming and the impending energy crisis. Despite the detours from the main story in Solar’s middle section, McEwan revives the novel’s quick pace in its final third as Beard faces ever increasing physical, mental, and financial dangers. Although Solar’s weak, overly-convenient ending fails to live up to the strength of the rest of the novel, it does deliver to Beard the comeuppance he deserves.