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Originally published Saturday, April 3, 2010 at 7:03 PM

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Book review

'Solar': Ian McEwan's novel of a scientist seeking the light

Ian McEwan's new novel, "Solar," is about a Nobel Prize-winning scientist and solar-energy expert with five ex-wives, an opportunistic approach to his work and a vague feeling that he may not be a very good person.

Special to The Seattle Times

'Solar'

by Ian McEwan

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 304 pp., $26.95

In an interview with The New Yorker magazine last year, British novelist Ian McEwan spoke about his writing process. "You spend the morning," he said, "and suddenly there are seven or eight words in a row. They've got that twist, a little trip, that delights you. And you hope they will delight someone else. And you could not have foreseen it, that little row."

Part of the pleasure of McEwan's new novel, "Solar," is looking for those trademark "little rows," and they're everywhere. At the airport, people waiting in line at immigration are "no longer fellow travelers, but adversaries, competitors in a slow race." A commuter stares out a smeared train window at "suburban London's miraculous combination of chaos and dullness." And an oft-divorced husband ponders his wife's remarriage, to a man of similar girth but more agreeable temperament, "as if marriage were a series of corrected drafts."

Though "Solar" doesn't quite have the emotional heft of much of McEwan's recent work — the haunting "Atonement," whose final pages turn on a light that throws the rest of the book into beautiful shadow; that brief, tragic lost romance "On Chesil Beach" — the new novel is thoroughly engrossing and often quite funny. It's the story of Michael Beard, a rotund Nobel Prize-winning scientist with five ex-wives, an opportunistic approach to his work and a vague feeling that, perhaps, he isn't a very good fellow. In three sections, set in 2000, 2005 and 2009, we follow Beard through several continents, a handful of relationships and many awkward moments.

On a train, he eats a fellow passenger's bag of potato chips, mistaking it for the bag in his coat pocket. (The other man, silently appalled, reaches in to get his share, and "their hands came down on the bag, in steady, deliberate rather than rapid succession, and never quite touched ... It was an outrage.") Beard is the sort who often says the wrong thing, or doesn't say the right thing, and it gets him in trouble: with two women who both want him to marry them; or with "scientific illiterates" to whom he too easily condescends.

Beard's interests lie not so much in climate change (he's initially skeptical, though understands that it's his bread and butter) but in solar energy; specifically, artificial photosynthesis, which would transform light and water into hydrogen and oxygen. But he's looking at a transformation of his own: from a bumbling romantic failure to someone who will, some day, reach "the settlement, the calm plateau" of a life unfettered by disorder. He lives in a fetid apartment — McEwan lets us smell his soiled couch, and see the cluttered bookshelves where he once marked the page of a first edition with a rasher of bacon — as if marking time, waiting for a newer, corrected draft.

Initially off-putting, Beard sneaks up on the reader. He becomes a comrade as we follow him on his travels, including a wonderfully rendered climate-change fact-finding expedition to the North Pole. On the trip, Beard becomes fascinated by the disorder on ship, as everyone's gear is strewn recklessly about. How were they to save the earth, he wonders, "when it was so much larger than the boot room?"

Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.

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