“Lessons” is a story of a life, its influences, its twists and turns and all of the changes that occur with the passage of time. The novel is pure Ian McEwan.
Roland Baines is the product of a complicated family life. Roland has a half-sister, Susan and a half brother, Henry, children from his mother’s first marriage. His father, Captain Robert Baines, a stern military man, has a warm and a soft side. His mother, Rosalind, appears meek and fearful. But Rosalind has some secrets, which are slowly disclosed throughout the novel.
Roland’s parents both quit school at the age of 14. They wand better for Roland and send him to a boarding school when he is 11 years old. His father insisted that he take piano lessons and it turns out that Roland is an extremely talented pianist. His lessons begin with Miriam Cornell. Miss Cornell is inappropriate toward Roland and he avoids her for many years. But ultimately, an intimate relationship develops between them which has lasting consequences for Roland’s future.
When the reader first meets Roland, he and his infant son, Lawrence have been deserted by his wife, Alissa, and the police suspect foul play. Roland is their primary suspect. Roland, who at this point is, among other things, a poet, has written some poetry with the lines “She won’t go away. Just the wrong time, when I need calm. She must remain dead.” Of course this poem is not about Alissa—it is about Miriam.
Alissa’s family life is also complex. Her father, Heinrich, was a German student during World War II and distantly involved with an antiNazi group and her mother, Jane had been a journalist until she met Heinrich and married.
Alissa has left to pursue her dream of becoming a novelist and she does, in fact, become a great novelist. She believes that the only way to create great literature is to focus exclusively on writing and wants nothing to do with her son even as he tries to reach out to her. She is considered Germany’s greatest novelist. But is the price too high?
Throughout the novel Roland has many romances but none stick until he finally marries his close friend Daphne late in life. Roland leads a long life and a lot of things happen in the world during that time. The Berlin wall falls, parents die, stories evolve, efforts are made to tackle climate change, children grow, marry and have children, England leaves the European Union and there is a pandemic. Each thing touches on Roland’s life and yet life goes on. Miriam’s influence on his life flows throughout the novel.
The novel ponders early life influences and human resilience despite the tugs of politics and loss. The story is typical Ian McEwan in its treatment of external influence on fate and yet it also has a certain level of hopefulness based on family, love and human empathy. The novel is dense and long and it is not an easy read, but it is worth the effort. You can reserve “Lessons” at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.