Solar (novel)

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First edition
Author Ian McEwan
Language English
Genre Satire
Publisher Random House
Publication date
18 March 2010
Media type Print (hardcover)
Pages 304
ISBN 0-224-09049-6

Solar is a novel by author Ian McEwan, first published on 18 March 2010 by Jonathan Cape, an imprint of Random House. It is a satire about a jaded Nobel-winning physicist whose dysfunctional personal life and cynical ambition see him pursuing a solar-energy based solution for climate change.

Plot summary[edit]

Michael Beard is an eminent, Nobel Prize–winning physicist whose own life is chaotic and complicated. The novel takes the reader chronologically through three significant periods in Beard's life: 2000, 2005 and 2009, interspersed with some recollections of his student days in Oxford.


Beard heads a fictional research centre in the British town of Reading but has little faith in the project and sits primarily as a political mascot. He is unfaithful to his fifth wife, Patrice, just as he was to his previous four wives. Instead of recriminations and threats of leaving, Patrice embarks upon an affair with their builder. Beard decides he has found the perfect wife just as he is losing her, and falls into a deep depression. To counter this, he agrees on a trip to the Arctic, to research climate change. He turns out to be the only scientist on an expedition dominated by artists. On his return home Beard learns that his wife has also been having an affair with his junior colleague Tom Aldous. During a tense encounter with Beard, Aldous dies in a freak accident, and Beard inherits his secret research into techniques for artificial photosynthesis. Beard frames Patrice's builder boyfriend Tarpin, who is jailed for Aldous's death.


Despite a history of humiliating media coverage, Beard manages to build a reputation as a champion of solar energy, in the process passing Aldous's research off as his own. He has been fired from his job in Reading, but is working on plans for an artificial photosynthesis plant. Beard continues to put on weight and his gastronomic indulgence is described in regular detail. He has a doting girlfriend Melissa who is desperate for a child. Time is running out for her, and so, taking matters into her own hands, she becomes pregnant.


Beard is now father, and sixty-two years old. He is not in the best of health, and is worried about a suspicious-looking lesion on his wrist. His solar power plant is in the final stages of construction in Lordsburg, New Mexico, where he has acquired another girlfriend, Darlene, a waitress. Darlene wants to marry him, but he has a very comfortable set-up with Melissa and his three-year-old daughter, Catriona. All his problems culminate on the eve of the opening ceremony for his solar power plant. Tarpin is out of jail and turns up looking for work, Melissa flies to New Mexico with his daughter to try and win him over from Darlene, a patent lawyer arrives with proof that he stole his ideas from the now-dead Aldous, his doctor confirms the lesion on his hand is cancerous, his business partner abandons him to multi-million dollar debts, and then he learns that somebody (presumably Tarpin) has sabotaged his power plant by smashing the solar panels. In the final scene Beard gets an "unfamiliar, swelling sensation" in his heart which he interprets as love for his daughter, but may well be the onset of a heart attack.


The novel is primarily a work of fiction but draws heavily on references to real science and modern history.

Michael Beard's trip to the Norwegian Arctic island of Spitsbergen is based on a 2005 trip McEwan made with art and climate change organisation, Cape Farewell. The group of artists and scientists that McEwan travelled with included Antony Gormley and Rachel Whiteread.[1] He later said of the trip:

We spent our evenings discussing [climate change], talking about how the world needed fundamental changes of approach and culture, and at the same time there was this growing chaos in the room next door – the boot room, where all our outdoor gear was stored – our snow mobile suits and so on. It was this disparity between the self-made disorder in our lives on the ship, and our aspirations, our ideals, that suggested that one approach to this subject was through a kind of forgiving humour.[2]


In 2010 Solar was awarded the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize, a British literary award for comic writing.[3]

External links[edit]