I was initially going to toss this book aside, outwardly distracted by the
leaden, rather academic talk of global warning, climate change, and the academia
associated with the development of new sources of wind and solar energy. But I
persisted, and McEwan’s dark and sardonic novel ultimately paid off, driven by the unique character of Michael Beard, a brilliant astrophysicist determined to save the world from ecological and environmental disaster.
There are various rules are at play here, not withstanding Michael’s definitive lack of character. Michael is hardly an angel or even a shrinking violet
- five failed marriages, binge eating and weight gain, along with the sequence of minor ailments that seem to consistently mock him. We first meet him in the summer of 2000, this sometimes greedy and selfish man who is also calculating and mendacious when to be otherwise would embarrass him.
In his early 50s, Michael’s delusional state is in part belied by the unraveling of his marriage to his wife, the gorgeous Patrice. A dead ringer for Marilyn Monroe, Patrice drifts through their house in Belsize Park in a haze of blond and pink and pale blue. Drawn by a whiff of obsession, paranoia and insomnia, “the rational despair of a cuckold and a falsely cheerful triumphal air,” Michael still wants Patrice even though she’s having an affair with gruff, potbellied, blue-collar builder Rodney Tarpin.
Taking refuge from his near-silent fifth marriage (and his ability to think of nothing but Patrice and Tarpin entwined together), Michael takes a job with a new government research establishment called the National Center for Renewable Energy. Although headed by a senior civil servant called Jock Braby, it is among the earnest post-docs with their ponytails and their rimless glasses that Michael meets his nemesis: tall, blonde, thin-faced Tom Aldous.
Tom is excited that the Center will face as its prime directive the development of “nanosolar,” a new clean way of distilling electricity from hydrogen. But Tom’s youthful idealism and his penchant for entrepreneurial creativity ultimately set Michael on edge. An invitation to Michael’s house for dinner, where the married couple harmoniously entertain “the merry young man,” signifies not only a fundamental shift in Patrice’s attitude toward her husband but also sets off a chain reaction that will change Michael’s life for better and for worse. All the miles in the air and all the scotches and junk food can’t prevent a sudden death and surprising arrest where Michael is cast as "the hapless victim."
Edgy but also laced with a dark, subversive humor along with some laugh-out-loud set pieces, Solar becomes a bit pedantic when dealing with the technicalities of renewable energy and Michael’s grand plans to create artificial photosynthesis on an industrial scale - plans fatefully stolen from the ever-present Tom Aldous. McEwan, however, consistently proves himself to be an expert on the topic, his writing always elegant and nimble as his intricately layered story rapidly descends into a fascinating character study of a man on the downside of life, where the painful nature of Michael’s personal failings are so eloquently juxtaposed with a planet poised on the very edge of destruction.