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Don’t be deterred by the pedestrian title of Ian McEwan’s latest book. LESSONS, the Booker Prize-winning author’s anything but didactic 18th novel, is a deeply felt character portrait whose powerful impression is enhanced on every page by his mellifluous prose.

LESSONS is an account of some 60 years in the life of Englishman Roland Baines, spanning the period from the Cold War to COVID-19. McEwan begins his story with a rupture in Roland’s unassuming life, when his wife Alissa, the daughter of an English mother and German father, suddenly leaves him and their seven-month-old son --- initially giving rise to concern that she’s been the victim of foul play --- and heads to her native Germany to pursue her dream of becoming a novelist. She leaves behind a “precisely and self-pityingly unhappy” Roland to care for an infant as he simultaneously scratches out a living in occupations that include writing greeting card poetry, teaching tennis, and playing show tunes and jazz standards for barely attentive patrons in a hotel bar.

"There’s nothing flashy or especially dramatic about LESSONS, but it’s an admirable work --- the sturdily constructed product of a master craftsman that should stand the test of time."

But as McEwan patiently explains in a series of skillfully executed flashbacks, the roots of Roland’s adult difficulties may lie in the adolescent and teenage years he spends at a British boarding school after living in Libya for several years, where his father served as a military officer. While at school, Roland, a talented classical pianist, comes under the tutelage of a young teacher, Miriam Cornell, who’s a decade older. By the time Roland reaches his mid-teens, their relationship --- “a clever torture that left no mark” --- has evolved into one that, if exposed, would be the stuff of scandal. And when it comes to its inevitable end, Roland emerges into what he later comes to think of as a “lost decade,” on a trajectory far different from one that would be expected from someone of his talent and intelligence.

In middle age and later, Roland has the opportunity to reckon with his relationships with these two women who have inflicted undeniable damage on him in very different ways. His face-to-face encounters with each of them are frank, and their outcome is refreshingly unpredictable. But in contrast to the work of a lesser writer, McEwan never places his thumb on the moral scale, leaving it to the reader to pass whatever judgments feel appropriate.

Without ever losing sight of the obligation to tell an engaging story, McEwan also subtly interrogates a range of provocative issues. Among them are whether it’s necessary, especially for female artists, to make a choice between family and the creative life; the lifelong effects of childhood trauma; and the ways in which family histories are remembered and sometimes revised. As one artful sentence flows unobtrusively into the next, it’s easy to overlook the attention he pays to these concerns out of sheer eagerness to follow the course of Roland’s life as it stumbles forward.

McEwan’s sophisticated and economical invocation of historical events that include the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Chernobyl nuclear accident and Brexit --- along with the attention he pays to the looming threats of nuclear war and climate change --- is meaningful without ever allowing these concerns to intrude on the foreground of his story.

In one extended set piece, Roland visits Germany as the Berlin Wall is being toppled, energized by the surge of optimism of those days. “History books would close with this,” he reflects, “a jubilant mass of decent people celebrating a turning point for European civilisation. The new century would be fundamentally different, fundamentally better, wiser.” But by the novel’s end, Roland, in his eighth decade and recognizing he has benefited from being “a child of a long peace,” laments his naïveté: “By what logic or motivation or helpless surrender did we all, hour by hour, transport ourselves within a generation from the thrill of optimism at Berlin’s falling Wall to the storming of the American Capitol?”

Roland Baines is an unremarkable man who leads an undistinguished life. But given McEwan’s sensitivity and emotional acuity, it would be a grave mistake to conclude that it’s an uninteresting one. There are ample moments of joy and sadness amid the accretion of days that unfold, one after the next, to create a life story. He’s so adept at evoking his fictional creation’s struggles that it’s necessary to remind oneself at times that they exist only on the page. There’s nothing flashy or especially dramatic about LESSONS, but it’s an admirable work --- the sturdily constructed product of a master craftsman that should stand the test of time.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on September 16, 2022

by Ian McEwan

  • Publication Date: September 13, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0593535200
  • ISBN-13: 9780593535202