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History “Lessons” with Ian McEwan: A review of McEwan’s latest novel

Ian McEwan's novel is sitting on grass next to a Frank Green take away coffee cup.

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Today, I wanted to talk about Ian McEwan’s novel Lessons. I’ve been reading it for book club and it is definitely not my usual kind of novel, even though I am a lover of historical fiction. Ian McEwan is a prolific author and he has so many publications, and many of his novels have been made into screen productions. I think there are many readers who love his work and read and follow the things he writes with passion.

This book has been extremely popular. I had originally tried to borrow this novel from my local library, and I requested it in November last year – by late January, there were still 104 people in front of me to borrow the novel. So I ended up buying it so I could read it in time.

I have not read any of McEwan’s previous novels, which in some ways gives me a different kind of perspective on this novel. I feel and hope that it might give me some fresh eyes and new perspectives – and if you’re a lover and follower of McEwan’s writing, I would love to hear what you thought about the novel in the comments below.

Before I deep dive into the storytelling and plot, I want to first give a big shout out to Tina Berning who created the cover art for this book. It is stunning. I absolutely love the neon orange and pink with the navy, I love the shadowing and overall composition of the cover – this cover is award winning. I really hope that this neon design with matte paper becomes a novel cover trend, because I would buy all the books (not that I need much encouragement there…).

Buy your copy from the Book Depository here.

McEwan’s novel is heavy. There isn’t really a way around that. The topics can be quite intense, and for anyone reading this novel with sexaul abuse or grooming trauma, then this might be something to approach with caution.

My overall takeaway from the novel is that McEwan asks the question: what are the big and small historical events in our life that end up impacting the decisions we make and who we might end up with? It is an literary exercise in the butterfly effect, and in particular it looks at the ways that things like the first and second world wars have shaped not just Europe, but the people too.

The novel follows the life of Roland Baines, and the novel swaps between Roland’s formative years at an all boys boarding school in the U.K. and his adult life as a single father to his son Lawrence, after his wife disappears one day.

While I was drawn into many parts of McEwan’s storytelling – a lot of his writing just didn’t go where I wanted to it. At times, it felt like I was reading a history textbook, and the novel was very laden with facts. I don’t know if my academic background in history might make me less inclined to read novels that go into great detail (especially about the second world war as I studied this extensively throughout my degrees). It felt like ‘History Lessons’ rather than just ‘Lessons’.

When Roland’s wife disappears it isn’t until almost in the middle of the novel that any kind of understanding is given to reader. It doesn’t seem like it is a suspense thing either – it is just she is suddenly gone. There is even a subplot of possible police investigation of Roland murdering his wife that fizzles into nothing. While I didn’t expect Lessons to be a crime novel, I felt like there were a lot of smoking guns that did only that.

The relationship that Roland has with his piano teacher, Miriam, is a painful telling. It shows the complexities of grooming and sexual assault, especially when power dynamics between teacher/student and adult/child are involved. Showing this kind of relationship also exposes the many different ways that grooming can look like, especially when the perpetrator is a woman, rather than a man.

I enjoyed aspects of McEwan’s novel, but ultimately a lot of it fell short for me. I would personally want the novel to be shorter and pack a bit more of a punch. I’ve been wondering since reading Lessons if this is part of McEwan’s style or if it is something specific about this novel.

I would love to hear from you if you have read “Lessons“. If you love McEwan’s work, what is your favourite book from him. Tell me in the comments below. As always, share the reading love.