Ian McEwan

It is 1986. A man, Roland Baines, recalls a kiss. He is in bed, hungover, with a five-day beard and a baby on his big belly. The kiss he remembers was from his piano teacher, Miss Cornell. His wife, the German Alissa, has run away from him. She does, however, regularly send him postcards with the message that he should not go looking for her and that she loves him, but cannot do otherwise. As a poor, single father with a baby, Roland’s defeat is complete.

This is the opening scene in Ian McEwan’s generational novel Lessons. He has just been sent to boarding school by his parents, who want the best for him, also because they themselves had to leave school when they were fourteen. However, the transition from Roland’s carefree childhood on a British army base in exotic Libya, where his father serves as a professional officer, to the strict discipline of the boys’ boarding school, makes the boy feel lonely and lost. He starts an uneven relation with Miss Cornell that will define the rest of his life.

Ian McEwan masterfully sets Roland’s life against the backdrop of historical events as the Tsjernobyl disaster, the Cuba Crisis, the Thatcher years and the fall of the Berlin Wall. For me, the description of the Thatcher years and the German history regarding The Weisse Rosw (The White Rose) and the fall of the wall were very enlightening. The way McEwan blends these events in Roland’s story is masterful. If there hadn’t been a Cuba Crisis, Roland never would have started his devastating relation with Miss Cornell, having to wander for ten years to push Miss Cornell out of his mind and ruin his life.

In a way his German wife Alissa shows him what he perhaps could have achieved weren’t it for his relation with his piano teacher. But he lives his life by letting it happen instead of taking the reigns. Just when he finally takes a drastic life decision, deciding to marry the woman he lives with, the budding happiness is snatched away.

For me the general theme was one of decay. From the beginning, all starts to unravel. Britain’s decay is manifested in the need to leave Libia, his lost decade after Miss Cornell, his rotten house in Chapman, the unfulfilled promise as a classic pianist.

Roland is a typical ‘boomer’, born just after World War II and his youth was characterized by its aftermath. Eventhough I count myself not as a boomer (although my kids might disagree with me) to a certain extent I could relate with him. McEwan seems to wonder how Roland’s life could have taken a very different turn at one point if he had made other decisions. It is perhaps something that we all – as we grow older – sometimes will ask ourselves.

  • Ian McEwan


    ISBN: 9780593535202 | Pages: 448 pages | Publication date: September 13, 2022

    Buy on Amazon

Photo credit: Elliot Billings (link)


Roland represents a "boomer" generation, influenced by post-World War II repercussions. The narrative raises questions about pivotal life decisions and the alternative paths they might have led to, resonating with readers as they contemplate their own life trajectories. "Lessons" artfully entwines personal struggles with historical context, inviting reflection on the interplay between individual choices and external forces.

— Bill
Prev post: A small town’s fight for intellectual freedomNext post: Uniting the world to measure the universe

Related posts