I am reneging here on a verbal star assignation for this book. About half way through there is a tale in which Beard eats a bag of chips on a train from Heathrow to Paddington. At the end of this story, I set the book down and told my husband, no matter what, this book just got a 5 star rating. I read the 5-6 page passage out loud to him and we discussed the perfection that is this story within a story. Twenty pages later, Beard retells the story and is accused by a folklorist of fabricating his own version of the "Unwitting Thief" tale. Five minutes online and I have found several other versions (including one reference to Solar) of the UT story. So, I no longer feel compelled to credit McEwan with this story or give the book a 5 star rating because of it.
That said, it was a good book. Beard is not a likeable main character ("He belonged to that class of men--vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever--who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women. Or he believed he was, and thinking seemed to make it so. And it helped that some women believed he was a genius in need of rescue."), but he is funny and fun to watch as he spirals to his own destruction on every possible level (personal, professional, emotional, financial). I still would have probably given this a 5 star rating if the ending wasn't so completely contrived and catastrophic. After the slow train wreck that is Beard's adult life (or at least post-Nobel winning life), it is absolutely unbelievable that everything would come to a head on one evening (the Aldous plagiarism, revenge from Tarpin, both Melissa and Darlene, and impending skin cancer; the only thing that doesn't peak at this point is the Aldous murder, but then again Beard is innocent of that). Instead, we would expect these things to fall onto his head at some point, but he would quietly die in his sleep before anything bad actually happens because he is hapless and unnervingly lucky.
There were some great comments about
addiction: "Inevitably, the second crisp was less piquant, less surprising, less penetrating that the first, and it was precisely this shortfall, this sensual disappointment, that prompted the need, familiar to drug addicts, to increase the dose.";
purpose in life: "the other pseudo-work he did to mask his irrelevance. What was life without the highest ambitions? the answer was exactly this: another night of unmemorable insomnia.";
tolerance of the idiots in the world: "He knew it too well, the special kind of mental suffocation that came from contact with aggressive low intelligence.";
internal decision making: "At moments of important decision-making, the mind could be considered as a parliament, a debating chamber. Different factions contended, short- and long-term interests were entrenched in mutual loathing. Not only were motions tabled and opposed, certain proposals were aired in order to mask others. Sessions could be devious as well as stormy.";
and egoism: "Like many clever men who prize objectivity, he was a solipsist at heart, and in his heart was a nugget of ice."
Overall, I found it a very compelling, witty, and interesting read.