The latest of Ian McEwan’s novels, Lessons, explores the pivotal decisions humans must make either to achieve their dreams, or to conform with society; the unsought experiences – personal and historical – that shape our futures; and the regrets of mundane, unfulfilled lives.
We are introduced to Roland Baines, the protagonist, when his wife abandons him and their newborn son. Alissa (the wife) experiences the first stage of a lifetime dedicated to husband and baby, her own mother’s unsatisfied life, and resolves to vanish in order to pursue her dream career as a writer.
In his thirties, Roland is an aspiring poet who carries the weight of a decision he once made: at the age of sixteen he left school, even though he was a promising student thought to become the first in his family to get a university degree. Now, the intellectual ambitions that used to fill the void of his nonachievements give way to the demands of baby Lawrence postponing, again, Roland’s brilliant future.
But this sense of lacking has deeper roots, and soon the reader is transported to Roland’s teenage years at the boarding school where his piano teacher, Miriam Cornell, seduced the boy in a secret affair that would last two years. Miriam took advantage of Roland’s search for a sexual experience, and the spiral of obsession and lust that followed would shape his relationships onwards.
The parent who chooses a career over family life, the sexual predator who possesses a young and inexperienced victim; both roles are archetypically male, but performed by female characters in Lessons. The reader has to question these women’s decisions: is it possible to achieve success and be a devoted mother and wife? Alissa becomes one of the greatest writers of her generation, but her inner life turns into reclusion and resentment. When her mother, Jane, did the opposite, she was confronted with the unsatisfaction of a too-conventional life, regretting the departure from her adventurous previous self, who was starting her career as a journalist when the pregnancy happened. Regarding Miriam Cornell, mystery will surround her until the last quarter of the book. Was she a serial abuser of young boys, or did it happen only once? Does Roland’s search for her as a sexual object make her less of a predator? And, finally, would the matter have been as severe had she been a man? I enjoyed this game with gender paradigms and the discussions they arouse in the novel.
Meanwhile, Roland’s role is the one of a prototypical female: passive, taking what life throws at him, and somehow feeling inadequate and incomplete. After the generation who fought in the war, his existence lacks collective purpose and his merits are quantified by his professional success – none. But McEwan tells his story as that of one of the anonymous people who sustain families and friendships, whose wealth is measured by the seats occupied at the dinner table at Christmas or by the eagerness with which children and stepchildren come to visit after the restrictions of a pandemic. It only takes a life to recognize.
Through a slow but steady pace, the reader’s patience will eventually be rewarded with meticulous descriptions of the character’s determining moments. Lessons is a lifetime of events, history, and human emotions; a search for our own purpose, the eviction of our own regrets.
Vintage – Penguin Random House