Ian McEwan

Alfred A. Knopf

This was the beginning of the transition, of letting go, though Roland had never heard anyone speak of it, this form of parental dismay. You think of your child as your dependent. Then, as he starts to pull away, you discover that you are a dependent too. It had always cut both ways.

                        from Lessons



Haunted by the could-have-beens

The unexamined life remains unexamined for good reason. Such deep reflection was never meant for the faint-hearted. Regrets inevitably come with it. Now in his 70s, Roland Baines is haunted by the could-have-beens of his life: He could have been a concert pianist. Could have been a tennis pro. Could have been a poet. He became none of those, and as he tries to understand why not, he must face the man who he did become.

British novelist Ian McEwan (Atonement, Amsterdam, On Chesil Beach) writes from the deeper registers of human experience, on the pathos and imperfection of being who we are, so we shouldn’t expect some warm and cheery Tuesdays With Morrie-type tale from him.

As Roland attempts to understand his life while still living it—somewhat akin to fixing one’s car while driving it down the freeway—two key moments emerge: having been seduced at 14 by his attractive, 25-year old piano teacher Miriam Cornell, and then his wife abandoning him and their 7-month old baby. Roland examines how these two events set the trajectory of his life. 

McEwan, like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Woolf, and the greatest novelists, does the heavy lifting for us. He models how to take stock of one’s life—wondering what he or she achieved, and what it matters, how it might have been different depending on what one did, or didn’t do, the choices one made—with the brutal honesty that refuses to absolve oneself of responsibility for how it turned out.

It is an older person’s hobby, and this book could only be written by someone on the downhill side of life (McEwan is 74) and by someone with his consummate skill as a novelist. It’s all here: the self-doubt, the self-pity, the blaming others and the self-blame (he wanted to be seduced,) the moments of happiness along with times of sadness, of love, as well as loneliness, of profound gratitude and deepest despair. Roland (and the reader) begin to see patterns indicating to what extent he was a willing, if not necessarily self-aware, participant in his own fate. He wasn’t always 14—Or maybe he was.

Such soul-searching is both uncomfortable and inspiring to read, demonstrating the courage to ask the difficult questions that many of us can’t, or don’t wish, to ask ourselves.

Socrates famously pronounced that the unexamined life is not worth living. He never said examining one’s life is pleasant.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (January 15, 2023.) Reprinted with permission.