Ian McEwan’s ‘Lessons’ explores complex emotional terrain

The novel "Lessons" by Ian McEwan traces the arc of a man’s life, and the struggle to overcome the stain of early abuse, to find his footing.

"Lessons," by Ian McEwan, Knopf, 448 pp.
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the impact of early sexual abuse. 

Across decades, a man grapples with early sexual abuse, his absent wife, and single fatherhood in a novel that explores complex emotional terrain.  

Early in bestselling author Ian McEwan’s ambitious novel “Lessons,” protagonist Roland Baines witnesses a wreck between a car and a motorbike. Observing his military father’s quick response and the efficient care of emergency crews, the 9-year-old feels a surge of emotion, awed by “an entire system, just below the surface of everyday life.”

“Lessons,” a moving account of one man’s troubled life, reveals a slew of such systems – the web of ancestral ties, long-ago liaisons, macro events, and micro choices that underpins an individual life. Frank, assured, and unhurried, it’s a novel that grapples with big questions and thorny feelings. 

Complex emotional territory is nothing new for the prolific McEwan, whose earlier titles include “Amsterdam,” a Booker Prize winner, and the critically acclaimed novels “Atonement,” “On Chesil Beach” and “Saturday.” With “Lessons,” the author gives himself the space to present a disparate cast of characters – warts, wounds, and all – across a satisfying sweep of time. 

Readers first meet Roland, a sleep-deprived new father, as he recalls one of the pivotal moments of his young life: the unwelcome advances of his stern, 20-something piano teacher, Miss Miriam Cornell, during a weekly lesson at his English boarding school when he was 14. This sexual abuse sets in motion a turbulent, manipulative relationship that threatens to swallow Roland; it’s at times graphic and always disturbing. McEwan doesn’t shy from the chaos it wreaks on the boy’s mental health, education, talents, and relationships – present and future. In fact, the violation gives rise to one of the novel’s core questions: Can individuals recover from early traumas, or are the ensuing scars and burdens indelible? McEwan eschews glib, one-note answers. Prepare instead for honest reckonings, moments of well-earned progress and, yes, even lessons learned. 

The novel then shifts to the present day, in the spring of 1986. Roland, a financially precarious Londoner in his late 30s, reels from the sudden, surreptitious departure of his wife Alissa. Consumed with caring for their 7-month-old son Lawrence, the baffled father limps through bleary-eyed days and desultory attempts to sustain his poetry career (such as it is). News headlines – Chernobyl melts down to the east – provide an excuse for hiding at home, while the arrival of an inspector reveals that Roland is a suspect in Alissa’s disappearance.

McEwan writes about parenthood with specificity and wit, from the fierce early attachments to the dawning of a new and surprise-filled intelligence. “The long letting go could be the essence of parenthood,” Roland muses early on while holding his infant son close. 

The novel excavates a multitude of other day-to-day dramas – family dynamics, coming-of-age confusions, professional insecurities, stockpiled disappointments – via fresh observations, searching questions, and deft dialogue. There’s humor, too, tucked in its pages. When the inspector arrives to investigate Alissa’s disappearance, he remarks, “Generally, when a missing wife’s dead it’s the husband that’s killed her.” “Then let’s hope she’s alive,” replies Roland.

Alissa, it turns out, is very much alive, ensconced in her native Germany and laser-focused on creating a writing life she insists would be impossible as a mother and wife. Her unapologetic decision to prioritize art over family flips the trope of the all-consumed male artist and raises compelling questions: Which sacrifices are worth making in the pursuit of one’s passion – and who is allowed to make them?

Flashbacks to earlier eras provide many of the novel’s richest sections: Alissa’s parents and the White Rose resistance movement during World War II; Roland’s unstructured childhood in Libya due to his father’s post-war deployment; Roland and Alissa’s first encounters in Germany. 

As Roland ages through the '90s, into the 2000s, and up to the pandemic-shaped present, stubborn traits, including a perfectionist bent, are tested. His string of botched relationships ends, and a yearning to confront both Alissa and Miriam becomes inescapable. Even joy stakes a claim, nudging aside ennui, as he embraces the new role of grandfather.

What constitutes a successful life – particularly one damaged by sexual abuse and manipulation? McEwan’s engrossing story, in the end, suggests answers can be found even if it takes a lifetime of searching.

“First we feel, then we fall.” James Joyce’s quote serves as the epigraph for “Lessons” and a harbinger of the novel’s rocky emotional terrain. But the fall is not the whole of it. Deep, raw feeling can indeed provoke a painful tumbling. As Roland’s life proves, an insistence on reckoning not only arrests the fall, but helps one land, eventually, on one's feet.

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