The story of one man's life across generations and historical upheavals. From the Suez Crisis to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the fall of the Berlin Wall to the current pandemic, Roland Baines sometimes rides with the tide of history, but more often struggles against it.
... 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.
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.
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.