The accretion of personal histories is skillful but not obviously interconnected, and you read in anticipation of the big magician’s reveal that will tie the disparate subjects in a neat bow ... It turns out that the real revelation—and for me, the great appeal—of Lessons is that nothing like this ever comes about. Mr. McEwan has created a lost, likable protagonist whose 'shapeless existence' militates against the imposition of any grand order of meaning ... Which is not to say that Lessons lacks drama, as Mr. McEwan builds toward reckonings between Roland and the two influential women in his life. Yet these scenes, while emotionally potent, are essentially inconclusive ... This is quietly touching, as is Mr. McEwan’s decision to cede his habitual narrative control to more naturalistic forces. Lessons is more formless than previous books, and less obviously brilliant. It is also wiser and closer to the bone.
Jumping back and forth in time, McEwan’s generous, ambitious novel — his longest — tracks Roland through more than 70 years ... a masterpiece of modulation among pathos, fury, and affection ... The story of how Roland smuggles Animal Farm, a Velvet Underground album, and other contraband to friends in East Germany is a miniature, flawless thriller ... acks the same authority wielded by either the novelist in Atonement or the reciter in Saturday. Confined to each day’s vantage point, the diaries that Roland keeps and later burns offer few lessons. He imagines writing a history of the 21st century, but, without knowing how things will end, realizes it is an empty dream ... McEwan’s richly textured novel offers cryptic lessons, but what they teach leaves Roland, 'an ardent autodidact,' bewildered. The literary artistry leaves this reader in awe.
This intimate but sprawling story about an ordinary man’s reckoning with existence does not resemble the lean, controlled enquiries of McEwan’s past fiction. A 'meditation' on the way that global events penetrate and shape the life of a man and those around him, it is baggier and more protean than anything the author has written before, sacrificing polish in favour of swing. McEwan has typically been a 600-words-a-day craftsman; Lessons, written over three lockdowns, has a looser beat ... Lessons wrestles with this tension between life’s messiness and the need for narrative pattern. Roland’s sad-sack status is never fully attributed to the piano teacher’s abuse but the experience certainly warps his expectations of sex and romance ... The connecting theme is forgiveness, which McEwan seems intent on rescuing from Christianity ... Throughout the book, we are waiting for the line: 'He forgave himself.' When it comes, it’s deeply affecting ... Lessons is deep and wide, ambitious and humble, wise and substantial. It is, to my mind, McEwan’s best novel in 20 years because it is so alert to human texture and complexity.
Nobody is better at writing about entropy, indignity and ejaculation — among other topics — than Ian McEwan ... One of McEwan’s talents is to mingle the lovely with the nasty ... McEwan can make a reader feel as though she has bent forward to sniff a rose and received instead the odor of old sewage ... McEwan’s use of global events in his fiction tends to be judicious and revealing ... These all serve as reminders that history is occurring. And maybe some readers do, in fact, require that reminder. But Roland is so passive that one gets the sense he’d be exactly the same guy in any other century, only with a different haircut ... One way to read Lessons is as a self-repudiation of the maneuver at which McEwan has become virtuosic. More authors should repudiate their virtuosity. The results are exciting.
Lessons, his 18th novel, is a tour de force of breadth. Written during the Covid lockdowns, it ranges widely across place and period, propelled by the memories and meditations of its central figure ... Although the final stages of this vividly detailed lifetime chronicle are clouded, too, by 'the long business of modern old age' and its attendant ills, the novel is far from dispiriting. McEwan writes with invigorating alertness about social and political shifts over the past 70 years.
Expansive ... Lessons displays both breadth and depth. It ranks among McEwan's best work, including Atonement ... Issues come into focus later, including the art/life tradeoff and questions about whether genius can co-exist with happiness — or ever justify bad behavior. Some of the novel's answers may surprise you.
What distinguishes the book from an ordinary coming-of-age story is the monstrous crime that the boy was a victim of at 14, a violation of his body and spirit that distorts, disfigures and discolors the rest of his life. Or does it? The tricky thing about Lessons, just one of the many qualities that makes it such a beguiling and irresistible read, is that Roland Baines, the fictional character at its center – who shares a lot of history with the author – can’t quite decide ... In writing Roland’s life story, McEwan, an unparalleled master of social realism, performs a remarkable trick: He manages to create an ineffable sense of mystery out of a rather ordinary human life. You keep turning the pages, wondering how things are going to turn out for Roland ... How does McEwan pull it off? Through the patient accretion of closely observed detail and one beautiful, shimmering sentence after another ... McEwan weaves into the text his perceptive, nuanced thoughts about these world-changing events without ever seeming ponderous or pedantic, bringing them to life with the same understated elegance and good humor that he musters for chocolate bars and, years later, for his own son’s rocket-shaped, rainbow-colored lollipop. All of it is simply part of the fabric of his characters’ ordinary and extraordinary, utterly believable lives.
... engaging ... It’s formally impressive that after the charged encounter between Miriam and Roland in late adulthood (a wonderful scene), McEwan maintains narrative momentum for another 150 pages. Most novelists would have reserved the resolution of such a central relationship for the finale. Crucial questions are left dangling, as they should be ... McEwan’s prose always goes down like a cool drink, and its content is often trenchant ... He captures smaller revelations equally well, such as the exhilaration of putting on badly needed glasses for the first time ... I’m delighted to have added this thoughtful, touching and historically grounded novel to my bookshelf.
As in Saturday, the desire for geopolitical profundity generates some ludicrously symbolic violence ... Lessons made me long for the more melodramatic turns of McEwan’s other books ... Only the Miriam episodes offer the tension of sustained dialogue rather than the arm’s-length synopsis in which the rest of the novel unfolds ... Maybe the Mogadon prose is a stroke of psychologically incisive genius – a way to evoke the haunted stasis of Roland’s emotional life – but it’s a hell of a gamble with our patience. The weirdest thing is, if you do find yourself enjoying it, McEwan seems to end up saying you’re a bit of a mug.
You might say McEwan’s range was limited, but this after all has been the case with many fine novelists who mark out their own territory, however narrow it may be. Then, McEwan has always been a moralist; his novels engaged in moral argument ... In one sense Lessons is no different ... Instead of a slim, stylish novel, we have an old-fashioned, baggy, discursive work ... All the personal family side of the novel is good ... Perhaps Ian McEwan has arrived at that time when the swing-door of fashion sends an author stumbling into a cold dark street. If so, it’s sad and a shame. Lessons may not be McEwan’s sharpest novel, but it is one of his most humane and agreeable. It is continuously interesting and pleasing, and that is more – much more – than an be said for many novels that by their determined oddity impress the judges of many book prizes.
... a profound demonstration of his remarkable skill. While the story shares a few tantalizing similarities with the author’s life, it’s no roman à clef ... Here, finally, McEwan luxuriates in all the space he needs to record the mysterious interplay of will and chance, time and memory ... an extraordinarily deft portrayal of the way a too-early sexual experience permanently stains Roland’s romantic expectations ... progresses in time the way a rising tide takes the beach: a cycle of forward surges and seeping retreats, giving us a clearer and fuller sense of Roland’s life ... Indeed, even more than McEwan’s previous novels, Lessons is a story that so fully embraces its historical context that it calls into question the synthetic timelessness of much contemporary fiction. Roland may be imaginary, but he’s thickly woven into the social and political developments that shaped all our lives ... Some readers may feel Lessons is too stingy with drama, particularly given the book’s length, but I think it demonstrates the peculiar power of the novel form. There’s something close to divine in this process of creating the entire span of a person’s life embroidered with threads trailing off in every direction. Here is a narrative that moves with such patient dedication into the circuitous details of an ordinary man’s experience that by the end I knew Roland better than I know most of my actual friends.
Reading Lessons, I tried to suppress the suspicion that McEwan had written a long novel simply to show that he had the stamina ... Lessons feels self-indulgent and under-edited and, as it goes on, the problems mount ... McEwan interrupts with unnecessary historical context ... This is a curious novel and one of the oddest things about reading it is seeing McEwan abandon the qualities – brevity, subtlety, strangeness – that made his great works resonant, in favour of slack writing, didacticism and received wisdom. The lesson is that about some things it is better not to change your mind.
Lessons is an untypical McEwan novel, meandering and digressive ... But, for all that, its unshapeliness is undeniably well suited to the expansive subject matter of a whole life ... Regarding our lives in retrospect can induce a vertiginous feeling, a sense of their fragile shape being owed to many little decisions and blank contingencies. McEwan’s masterful handling of his timeline and Roland’s shifting perspective within it allows him to capture this unsteadying sensation extremely well ... Of course, this being a McEwan novel, his underlying conceit must be parsed into scientific idiom, preferably that of speculative physics ... Some of the most stimulating passages of Lessons are those in which McEwan offers intelligent and sensitive reflection on his novel’s evergreen themes — the tension between the artistic impulse and moral imperative, the vanity and the splendour of self-assertive human action in the face of a disordered world, and the fraught relation between abuse, agency and blame.
... old-fashioned, digressive and indulgently long ... But Lessons is also deeply generous. It’s compassionate and gentle, and so bereft of cynicism it feels almost radical. Can earnestness be a form of literary rebellion? ... McEwan’s sights are aimed squarely at the generation to which he belongs ... The self-interrogative courage that was so palpably missing from The Cockroach is here. So, too, is the humour ... the book it hopes to be: a hymn to the 'commonplace and wondrous', a tale of humane grace ... But it’s the female characters – from joyful children to art monsters – who give this novel its heft and verve (and perhaps its title). Next to them, McEwan’s everyman feels a little gormless and grey ... It’s a wearying trope: women as instruments and catalysts of male insight. But as Roland’s granddaughter reminds him: 'A shame to ruin a good tale by turning it into a lesson.'
... a thought-provoking, occasionally plodding character study ... Expansive and unhurried ... often insightful ... few novels are as perceptive about the sustaining nature of sturdy adult friendships. McEwan, too, can be funny ... But his efforts to imbue the proceedings with significance can be heavy-handed. Neither statesman nor solider, Roland is nonetheless impacted by every major crisis of the past seven decades, from Suez Canal-related tensions to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster to COVID-19. Instead of trusting readers to get his point — that we're all carried along by unforgiving historical currents — McEwan forsakes subtext, installing his protagonist as a sort of one-man newsreel whose every action is a response to the headlines of the day ... engaging, but it lacks the narrative finesse of his finest work.
One of the joys of the novel is the way it weaves history into Roland’s biography as well as the lives of other characters in the book ... Those historic markers put the very personal story of Roland’s life in perspective ... There are other themes here McEwan explores in depth — from envy to ambition to what truly constitutes a life well-lived — but the pleasure in reading this novel is letting it wash over you. McEwan is a storyteller at the peak of his powers and this deserves to be near the top of the 'best books of 2022' list.
... much more ambitious, and at the same time less streamlined, less structurally airtight, than anything else McEwan has done ... The size of the canvas means that McEwan has to forsake some of his customary narrative energy – there are a few longueurs – but the payoff comes in enhanced complexity and depth.
A scathing novel about the ways brutality, intentional or otherwise, can shape a life ... Lessons is designed to unsettle, which is nothing new for McEwan ... The book has moments of warmth that are surprising in a work from McEwan, but there’s plenty of his classic cruelty, too, perpetrated by men and women alike.
McEwan returns to his forte, the sweeping family drama ... This is a tale focused on a few characters that reveals much about the way the world has changed in McEwan’s lifetime. It is a rapturously enjoyable journey and one that demonstrates why McEwan is still one of the most engaging writers around.
... gathers up its author’s dazzlements and remixes them – gives them shape and lustre. Not enough shape, perhaps. But plenty of lustre. It mixes modes – realism, political essay, social history, memoir. It is capacious, chock-full. It constitutes a late argument in favour of the mainstream realist novel as a tool for thinking – the mainstream realist novel, which, at is best, both represents and interrogates consciousness itself. Consciousness here defined as the feeling of what happens; McEwan’s true subject, throughout his corpus ... there are some chore-like patches here – dead spots, plodding interludes. But this is oddly true of even quite short McEwan novels...It’s also true of life ... The prose swerves from lyrical intimacy to flat historical accounting – from Roland writing a poem to Previously on The Crown ... here he leavens George Eliot’s chatty essayism with microdoses of Virginia Woolf’s riverine inwardness. Like Saul Bellow’s, McEwan’s is a tamed modernism, brought to heel by the conventions of realism ... therefore works partly via thrillerish plotting and partly via the associations of memory; McEwan knows that our pasts do not sit neatly filed inside us in chronological order but seem jumbled, ordered less by simple time than by some hidden principle of emotional contiguity. It is Roland’s hidden principle – his affair with Miriam Cornell, in all its shades of moral and ethical ambiguity – that gives Lessons its own loose order ... It’s excellent; or mostly excellent. But McEwan is almost always excellent. His reputation among younger readers now seems shaky – he is too old, too white, too straight, too middle-class, too aesthetically traditional… His rational humanism, his luminously precise high-formal prose, his intricately ensnaring plots: all of these things are now out of fashion, as we re-embrace mysticism, plain style and fiction as radical political posturing. His loss or ours?
McEwan returns with his best work since the NBCC-winning Atonement, a sprawling narrative that stretches from the commencement of the Cold War to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic ... McEwan poignantly shows how the characters contend with major historical moments while dealing with the ravages of daily life, which is what makes this so affecting. He also employs lyrical but pared-down prose to great effect ... Once more, the masterly McEwan delights.
Regular readers of McEwan will also find incidents and thematic preoccupations from his earlier novels alluded to or repurposed in omnibus-fashion for this one ... far too short ... Because the third person narrator does not stray from Roland’s point of view, the lives and motives of the book’s vastly-more intriguing villains – Peter, Alissa, and his Berners Hall piano teacher Miriam Cornell – are left in various stages of underdevelopment ... Everything in Lessons, whose story concludes within a year and a half of its publication date, gives the impression of having been written in extreme haste. Its prose, for example, is pocked with first-order clichés, second-order clichés, dull metaphors, mixed metaphors, limp similes, oxymorons, pleonasms, catachresis, jejune diction, trivializing double entendres, pomposities, flagrant abuse of self-reflexive questions, and barely-concealed cribbings from more talented stylists like Nabokov ... Within the first fifty or so pages, Roland experiences no fewer than three portentous epiphanies, none of which turn out to have any bearing on the subsequent four hundred, as though they were narrative coupons McEwan cut out but forgot to cash in ... McEwan’s novel is not so much an epic as it is three novellas in a trench coat ... If this all sounds pat, it has less to do with the necessary evil that is plot summary in book reviewing, than to the didacticism with which McEwan imparts these and other praecepta in the novel itself. Yet perhaps worse than the way the book comes pre-interpreted for the reader is the way it comes pre-criticized ... The trench coat is History. Draped loosely from the backs of these three narratives are hundreds of named political and cultural events, persons, and phenomena, starting with Dunkirk and ending with the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, which range from the genuinely consequential to the merely newsworthy to the unmentionably trivial.