‘Lessons’ by Ian McEwan book review

Readers who were drawn to Ian McEwan’s great novel Atonement 20 years ago may have moved away from the author’s bizarre recent works.

His last three books were small, fantastical stories, full of worms with a strange sense of humor. “Nutshell,” for example, was an homage to “Hamlet,” told about an endangered fetus. Machines Like Me tells the story of a man who is betrayed by a sex robot. And “The Cockroach” squeezed Boris Johnson and Gregor Samsa together.

It’s safe to come back now.

McEwan’s new novel Lessons is a profound demonstration of his remarkable skills. Although the story bears some enticing similarities to the author’s life, it is not a roman à clef. Instead, it depicts an ordinary man, a failed writer beset by intimate and international crises over the course of more than seven decades. And for an author notoriously devoted to brevity, Lessons is also his longest novel. Here, finally, McEwan – who won the 1998 Booker Award for “Amsterdam” – revels in all the space he needs to capture the mysterious interplay of will and chance, time and memory.

The man at the center of this story is Roland Baines. For many years he has presumed to see himself as a professional poet – or at least an aspiring one. We meet him in 1986, shortly after his wife, a fellow writer, disappeared, leaving him and their young son behind. The police suspect someone else to be at fault, but Roland has no reason to doubt his wife’s explanation. “Don’t try to find me,” she wrote on a note on his pillow. “I love you, but this is forever. I lived the wrong life.”

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Her sudden disappearance, combined with the exhaustion of caring for a baby and fear of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, sends Roland’s mind back to a previous betrayal. When he was a 14-year-old pupil at an English boarding school, his piano teacher Miss Miriam Cornell nursed him, seduced him and kept him as a sex slave in her home. Roland knows to a certain extent that the two women – his ex-piano teacher and his misguided wife – are not alike, nor are their actions, but he can’t help but blame them both for taking on his life have distorted crucial points.

What follows is an extraordinarily adept portrayal of the way a premature sexual experience permanently stains Roland’s romantic expectations. In his painful memories of those months we see Miss Cornell’s perverted desires only through a boy’s pride and excitement. To us she is a devil of manipulation, but to young Roland – adrift in a world preparing for the nuclear annihilation unleashed by Kennedy or Khrushchev – Miss Cornell looks like salvation.

When their relationship ends, Roland is burdened with a terrible misperception of his moral guilt and a fractured sense of his personal capacity. “It never occurred to him that her behavior was depraved, despicable,” writes McEwan, but years later a grown lover sees the impact clearly: “That piano teacher . . . she rewired your brain.”

All of this unresolved psychological damage is eradicated when Roland’s wife leaves him. Different types of shame remain hopelessly muddled in his mind, leaving him virtually listless. It doesn’t help that his absent wife finds the literary success he’s long dreamed of. Worse, she becomes one of Europe’s most celebrated writers, a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize, while Roland and his son fade into the footnotes of her biography.

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But McEwan never loses sight of Roland. “Lessons” progresses over time like a rising tide sweeps the beach: a cycle of forward surges and seeping retreats that gives us a clearer and more inclusive sense of Roland’s life. He remains unattached, unengaged, often unemployed – tragically committed to a youthful fantasy that was never valid from the start. “How easy it was to drift through an unchosen life,” he thinks.

He becomes a sort of Zelig character who undergoes momentous changes in the late 20th century. “In a settled, expansive mood,” McEwan writes, “Roland occasionally reflected on personal and global, minute and momentous, events and accidents that had shaped and defined his existence. His case was not special – all destinies are similar.”

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Indeed, even more than McEwan’s earlier novels, Lessons is a story that embraces its historical context so completely that it challenges the synthetic timelessness of many contemporary novels. Roland may be imaginary, but he is deeply intertwined with the social and political developments that have shaped all of our lives, including the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reorganization of Eastern Europe, Margaret Thatcher’s transformation of the British economy and of course the Covid pandemic.

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Roland, who is clearly channeling 74-year-old McEwan, thinks it would be “a shame to ruin a good story by turning it into a lesson.” Looking back on his life, “When he asked himself if he wished none of this had happened, he had no ready answer.” But from the perspective of age, behind Roland, the great chain of cause and effect runs with instructive clarity. A cursed marriage blessed him with a wonderful son; Years of loneliness eventually led to true happiness. Could any bad brick in the shaky structure of his life have been removed without threatening the whole?

Some readers may think Lessons is stingy with drama, especially given the book’s length, but I think it demonstrates the special power of the novel form. There is something divine about the process of creating a human’s entire lifespan, embroidered with threads running out in all directions. Here is a narrative that moves into the intricate details of an ordinary man’s experience with such patient devotion that I ended up knowing Roland better than most of my actual friends.

RonCharles reviews and writes books Book club newsletter for the Washington Post.

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