Solar

( 158 )

Overview

Michael Beard is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist (and compulsive overeater) whose best work is behind him. Trading on his reputation, he speaks for enormous fees, lends his name to the letterheads of renowned scientific institutions, and halfheartedly heads a government-backed initiative tackling global warming. Meanwhile, Michael’s fifth marriage is floundering due to his incessant womanizing. When his professional and personal worlds collide in a freak accident, an opportunity presents itself for Michael to ...

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Solar

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Overview

Michael Beard is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist (and compulsive overeater) whose best work is behind him. Trading on his reputation, he speaks for enormous fees, lends his name to the letterheads of renowned scientific institutions, and halfheartedly heads a government-backed initiative tackling global warming. Meanwhile, Michael’s fifth marriage is floundering due to his incessant womanizing. When his professional and personal worlds collide in a freak accident, an opportunity presents itself for Michael to extricate himself from his marital problems, reinvigorate his career, and save the world from environmental disaster. But can a man who has made a mess of his life clean up the messes of humanity?
 
A complex novel that brilliantly traces the arc of one man’s ambitions and self-deception, Solar is a startling, witty, and stylish new work—Ian McEwan at his finest.
 

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Editorial Reviews

Michiko Kakutani
Despite the book's somber, scientific backdrop (and global warming here is little but that), Solar is Mr. McEwan's funniest novel yet—a novel that in tone and affect often reads more like something by Zoe Heller or David Lodge.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Booker Prize–winner McEwan (On Chesil Beach; Atonement) once again deploys domestic strife to examine the currents of worldwide change. This time, McEwan shoots for the sun, with the promise of solar energy gradually legitimizing itself in the mind of Nobel Prize–winning physicist Michael Beard. While Bush v. Gore drags on across the Atlantic and Beard's fifth marriage dissolves in an adulterous haze, the waning laureate rides his reputation to a cushy position at a U.K. climate research center, where he is generally disdainful of his younger colleagues. Then, following an epiphany of sorts, Beard pins the accidental death of a rival scientist on his wife's lover and steals the other man's research. By 2009, Beard is in New Mexico, riding high on ill-gotten funding and patents and within sight of a curious redemption. Beard is a fascinatingly repulsive protagonist, but he can't sustain a novel broken up by fast-forwards (all of which require tedious backstories) and a stream of overwritten courtships. The scientific material is absorbing, but the interpersonal portions are much less so—troublesome, since McEwan seems to prefer the latter—making for an inconsistent novel that one finishes feeling unpleasantly glacial. (Mar.)
Publishers Weekly
In the afterglow of winning a Nobel Prize, Michael Beard lives a dismal life marked by multiple marriages, figurehead positions, and his own gluttony. However, after his most recent wife leaves him, Beard attempts to start living life to the fullest. He stumbles into this new life with a great deal of fanfare and catastrophe: covering up murder, nearly losing his penis to frostbite, and devising a plan to harness the power of the sun to save the planet. Roger Allam's English accent and gravelly voice balances a range of characters and emotions, especially Beard's arrogance and self-righteousness. More importantly, Allam's straightforward delivery of Beard's zany adventures enhances the humorous quality of McEwan's text. A Doubleday hardcover (Reviews, Feb. 1). (May)
From the Publisher
#1 NATIONAL BESTSELLER
INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER
 
A Globe and Mail Best Book
A New York Times Notable Book
An O: The Oprah Magazine Great Read 
Winner – Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction 2010
 
“Deeply funny.”
Toronto Star
 
"Scarcely a page fails to dazzle with some wittily caught perception about contemporary life. Blazing with imagination and intellectual energy, Solar is a stellar performance."
—Peter Kemp, The Sunday Times

"McEwan at his best. Intelligent, funny, and full of insights."
—The Guardian

"A stunningly accomplished work, possibly his best yet."
—Financial Times

"Solar burns with wit and energy. It demonstrates why McEwan is among the language's most popular literary novelists."
—Winnipeg Free Press

"In Atonement or Enduring Love or Amsterdam or Saturday or pretty much any of his novels, Solar has many adept competitors for best of breed, and those competitors are beloved. But this may be his best work yet."
—The Star Phoenix

Library Journal
Man Booker Prize winner McEwan's 11th novel follows On Chesil Beach (2007), also available from Recorded Books. One-time Nobel Prize-winning physicist Michael Beard—now middle-aged, overweight, an alcoholic, and a serial monogamist—is well past his glory days. When a renewable energy foundation sends him on a junket to the Arctic to document the effects of global warming, he sees his chance at redemption. British actor Roger Allam nicely presents McEwan's tale, whose writing is beautiful and precise but whose plot is encumbered by the details of Beard's self-absorbed, narcissistic life. Recommended only for inclusive collections, to satisfy demand for British fiction, and where McEwan does well. [Includes a bonus interview with the author; the Nan A. Talese: Doubleday hc was recommended for "fans of McEwan's other works," LJ 4/15/10.—Ed.]—Sandy Glover, Camas P.L., WA
The Barnes & Noble Review

"He belonged to that class of men -- vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever -- who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women." This first sentence of Ian McEwan's new novel describes Michael Beard, age 53, a British Nobel-winning physicist and television celebrity. Unfortunately for Beard, the fifth of those women to marry him is openly sleeping with the couple's building contractor, Rodney Tarpin. Although Beard has cheated on Patrice, he now wants her back and decides to make her jealous by pretending that he has a female visitor while Patrice is in her bedroom. He finds a woman's voice on the radio, turns it up, and intercuts it with his voice. After a few minutes, "He went into the bathroom, ran a tap, flushed the lavatory and laughed out loud. Then he gave out a muted whoop. Patrice should know he was having fun." With this not so "clever" scheme and more to follow, Beard joins a distinguished line of bumbling cuckolds -- Joyce's Bloom, Nabokov's Humbert, Bellow's Herzog -- in McEwan's first go at a comic novel.

Professor Beard did his original work, "the Beard-Einstein Conflation," when young. Since then he has become the kind of globe-trotting guest lecturer familiar from David Lodge novels. Beard is an insatiable eater, constant drinker, and non-stop womanizer, favoring younger ones who can cook. He's also a slob, introducing entropy into any room he occupies. He's "aggressively unpolitical," and, despite heading the National Centre for Renewable Energy, suspects climate scientists are apocalypse mongers. McEwan amuses early on by slapping around his largely unlikable protagonist -- literally when Beard tries to kick Tarpin in the shin, figuratively when Beard's penis freezes to his zipper on an Arctic junket.

Returning home early from the Arctic boondoggle, Beard surprises Patrice's lover lounging in Beard's robe -- but this time it's not Tarpin, but a young physicist named Aldous who works for Beard's Centre. As Aldous rushes toward Beard to beg for mercy, the young man slips on a rug, hits his head on a table, and dies. Beard then uses some tools left behind by Tarpin to frame the contractor for the "murder." As Part One, dated 2000, ends, Beard is no longer a bumbler, is even more unlikable, and the light of Solar seems to darken.

But as in Enduring Love and Saturday, an accident, like a small initial change in the Chaos Theory Beard dismisses, can have large, improbable consequences. In Part Two, dated 2005, Beard has used Aldous's ideas to patent processes for solar energy and is on a mission to save the world from global warming if people will just let him. After making some innocuous remarks about science and gender, he is hounded by newspapers and politically correct academics, both ably satirized by McEwan, who has had several run-ins with journalists in recent years. Beard's bad luck continues when his new lover, Melissa, secretly goes off the pill, becomes pregnant, and refuses to have an abortion.

Readers (well, male readers) can share Beard's sympathies with himself as "victim." Consider the poor guy on a train. Beard is eating from a bag of "crisps" (potato chips) on the table between seats. A young man across from him takes a crisp from the bag, and the quantum-influenced Beard ponders multiple realities:

The act was naked theft, however trivial the goods…. Or a tease, in the old-fashioned Situationist mode, of a stuffy bourgeois. Or worse, the fellow believed that Beard was gay, and this was a come-on, a kind of modern opening known only to certain sub-groups for whom his purple silk tie, as a hypothesis, was an accidental signal, an open invitation to seduction…. The physicist knew much about light, but about forms of public expression in contemporary culture he was in the dark. Finally, returning to his initial surmise, Beard continued to wonder if his fellow passenger was a psychiatric case on an unlicensed drug holiday from the lithium, in which case it was a bad idea to continue to stare into his eyes. At this, Beard looked away and did the only thing that came to mind. He took another crisp.

The scene -- in McEwan's signature style, it mixes perception and paranoia, sex and science, narration and commentary -- goes on for another two pages until Beard realizes that his own bag of crisps is in his pocket and that he has been eating the other passenger's crisps. Once again, Beard is the fool, but now he could be a holy fool, with occult formulas for artificial photosynthesis.

Beard scatters disorder wherever he goes, but in Part III, dated 2009, McEwan conventionally, if somewhat improbably, gathers together the splinters of Beard's life at his solar installation in the New Mexico desert: his new, not-so-young American lover, Darlene, pressing him to marry; his still occasional lover Melissa and their daughter; the paroled Tarpin; and a lawyer accusing Beard of intellectual property theft. Beard also faces a new problem -- a highly symbolic but real melanoma. Can our lying, cheating, self-deluding, self-aggrandizing, self-defeating "hero" clever his way out? Does the sun usually rise in the east?

McEwan feels strongly enough about climate change to have written an essay on the subject, but perhaps anxious about seeming too earnest or topical, he said before Solar was published that global warming provided only the novel's "background hum." After Beard's transformation from warming sceptic to solar savior, he becomes McEwan's beard, articulating the author's arguments against warming deniers such as Michael Crichton in his novel State of Fear. These passages, like the neurology in Saturday, are well-researched and thankfully more than a "hum."

But, McEwan also said, the novelist needs a metaphor to incarnate his information. His begins with a "boot room" on the boat where Beard stays in the Arctic. In that entryway, the visiting intellectuals don't store their protective clothing in an orderly fashion and end up "borrowing" others' gloves and boots. The metaphor grows with the "crisp" scene. More serious manifestations are Tarpin's stealing Beard's wife, Beard's robbing Tarpin of his freedom, Beard's plagiarizing Aldous's formulas, Melissa's appropriating the Nobel genius's sperm, and, though never mentioned, Prometheus' theft of fire. Growing fatter and sicker with every year, Beard is described as a "monster" of consumption, thieving energy from the biosphere while trying to get a free lunch from solar radiation. Ultimately, McEwan implies, the unlikable but ingenious Beard is the metaphor for us humans.

Sometimes accused of being too solicitous of his readers, McEwan may alienate them with his metaphor. But from a novelist of McEwan's stature writing on a subject of this magnitude, I expect more. Not necessarily more information about rising sea levels and dead polar bears but more artistic risk than the comedy takes, more inventiveness than witty third-person indirect discourse allows, more range than this one-man show provides. In the Arctic, Beard mocks artists who would "inspire the public to take thought, take action." Solar has little such ambition, and McEwan's Beard-man metaphor is paltry when compared with the encompassing metaphors of great environmental fictions: the arc of the rocket and industrial civilization in Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, the loop of patriarchal poison in Smiley's A Thousand Acres, the war against insects in Vollmann's You Bright and Risen Angels. Or, more positively, the elegant formal helices of Richard Powers's novel about genetics and nature, The Gold-Bug Variations.

Reviewing his achievements in the novel's final pages, Beard quotes Newton, who said that he stood "on the shoulders of giants," an appropriate phrase for Solar because Newton "borrowed" the words from many earlier writers. In this entertaining and, yes, clever, novel, McEwan doesn't aim quite so high, but is content to crouch near the solar plexus of giants. That lower region generates visceral comedy but not, in Solar, planetary inspiration.

--Tom LeClair

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307739537
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/8/2011
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 949,943
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

IAN McEWAN is the bestselling author of thirteen books, including the novels On Chesil Beach; Saturday; Atonement, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the W. H. Smith Literary Award; The Comfort of Strangers and Black Dogs, both shortlisted for the Booker Prize; Amsterdam, winner of the Booker Prize; and The Child in Time, winner of the Whitbread Award; as well as the story collections First Love, Last Rites, winner of the Somerset Maugham Award; and In Between the Sheets. He lives in London.

Biography

One of the most distinguished novelists of his generation, Ian McEwan was born in England and spent much of his childhood traveling with his father, an army officer stationed in the Far East, Germany, and North Africa. He graduated from Sussex University in 1970 with a degree in English Literature and received his MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia.

McEwan burst upon the literary scene in the mid-1970s with two short story collections that highlighted with equal clarity his early predilection for disturbing, somewhat shocking subject matter and his dazzling prose style. Similarly, his 1978 debut novel, The Cement Garden, attracted as much attention for its unsettling storyline as for its stylistic brilliance. But even though his early work was saturated with deviant sex, violence, and death (so much so that he earned the nickname "Ian MacAbre"), he was never dismissed as a mere purveyor of cheap thrills. In fact, two of his most provocative works (The Comfort of Strangers and Enduring Love) were shortlisted for major U.K. awards.

As he has matured, McEwan has moved away from disquieting themes like incest, sadism, and psychotic obsession to explore more introspective human dramas. In an interview with The New Republic he described his literary evolution in this way:

"One passes the usual milestones in life: You have children, you find that whether you like it or not, you have a huge investment in the human project somehow succeeding. You become maybe a little more tolerant as you get older. Pessimism begins to feel something like a badge that you perhaps do not wear so easily. There is something delicious and reckless about the pessimism of being 21. And when you get older you feel maybe a little more delicate and hope that things will flourish. You don't want to take a stick to it."
Among many literary honors, McEwan has been awarded the Somerset Maugham Award for First Love, Last Rites (1976) and the Whitbread Prize for The Child in Time (1987). Nominated three times for the Booker Prize, he finally won in 1998 for Amsterdam. He has also received the WH Smith Literary Award and National Book Critics' Circle Fiction Award for Atonement (2001) and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Saturday (2005).

Good To Know

While developing the Harry Perowne, the neurosurgeon in Saturday, McEwan actually spent a year observing a neurosurgeon at work, which included time spent in the operating theater.

Although he is known principally for his novels, McEwan has also brought his vision to the screen as writer of the films The Ploughman's Lunch (1983) and Soursweet (1988).

Hollywood loves McEwan. Film adaptions of his novels include The Cement Garden, The Comfort of Strangers, The Innocent, Enduring Love, and Atonement.

McEwan is no stranger to controversy. In 1999, his first wife kidnapped their 13-year-old son.The child was returned and McEwan awarded sole custody. His ex-wife was fined for "defamation" of McEwan's name.

In 2002, Ian McEwan discovered that he had a brother born from an affair between McEwan's parents that occurred before their marriage and given up for adoption during WWII. Since their relationship has come to light, McEwan and his brother have met frequently and forged a friendship.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Ian Russell McEwan
    2. Hometown:
      Oxford, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 21, 1948
    2. Place of Birth:
      Aldershot, England
    1. Education:
      B.A., University of Sussex, 1970; M.A., University of East Anglia, 1971
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

 
      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 the Michael Beard of this time was a man of narrowed mental condition, anhedonic, monothematic, stricken. His fifth marriage was disintegrating, and he should have known how to behave, how to take the long view, how to take the blame. Weren’t marriages, his marriages, tidal, with one rolling out just before another rolled in? But this one was different. He did not know how to behave, long views pained him, and for once there was no blame for him to assume, as he saw it. It was his wife who was hav­ing the affair, and having it flagrantly, punitively, certainly without remorse. He was discovering in himself, among an array of emo­tions, intense moments of shame and longing. Patrice was seeing a builder, their builder, the one who had repointed their house, fitted their kitchen, retiled their bathroom, the very same heavyset fellow who in a tea break had once shown Michael a photo of his  mock-Tudor house, renovated and tudorized by his own hand, with a boat on a trailer under a Victorian-style lamppost on the concreted front driveway, and space on which to erect a decommissioned red phone box. Beard was surprised to find how complicated it was to be the cuckold. Misery was not simple. Let no one say that this late in life he was immune to fresh experience. 
      He had it coming. His four previous wives, Maisie, Ruth, Eleanor, Karen, who all still took a distant interest in his life, would have been exultant, and he hoped they would not be told. None of his mar­riages had lasted more than six years, and it was an achievement of sorts to have remained childless. His wives had discovered early on what a poor or frightening prospect of a father he presented, and they had protected themselves and got out. He liked to think that if he had caused unhappiness, it was never for long, and it counted for some­thing that he was still on speaking terms with all his exes. 
      But not with his current wife. In better times, he might have pre­dicted for himself a manly embrace of double standards, with bouts of dangerous fury, perhaps an episode of drunken roaring in the back garden late at night, or writing off her car, and the calculated pursuit of a younger woman, a Samson-like toppling of the marital temple. Instead he was paralyzed by shame, by the extent of his humiliation. Even worse, he amazed himself with his inconvenient longing for her. These days, desire for Patrice came on him out of nowhere, like an attack of stomach cramp. He would have to sit somewhere alone and wait for it to pass. Apparently there was a certain kind of husband who thrilled at the notion of his wife with other men. Such a man might arrange to have himself bound and gagged and locked in the bedroom wardrobe while ten feet away his better half went at it. Had Beard at last located within himself a capacity for sexual masochism? No woman had ever looked or sounded so desirable as the wife he suddenly could not have. Conspicuously, he went to Lisbon to look up an old friend, but it was a joyless three nights. He had to have his wife back, and dared not drive her away with shouting or threats or brilliant moments of unreason. Nor was it in his nature to plead. He was frozen, he was abject, he could think of nothing else. The first time she left him a note—Staying over at R’s tonight. xx P—did he go round to the mock-Tudor ex-council semi with the shrouded speed­boat on the hard standing and a hot tub in the  pint- sized backyard to mash the man’s brains with his own monkey wrench? No, he watched television for five hours in his overcoat, drank two bottles of wine, and tried not to think. And failed. 
      But thinking was all he had. When his other wives had found out about his affairs, they had raged, coldly or tearfully, they had insisted on long sessions into the early hours to deliver their thoughts on bro­ken trust, and eventually their demands for a separation and all that fol­lowed. But when Patrice happened across some e-mails from Suzanne Reuben, a mathematician at the Humboldt University in Berlin, she became unnaturally elated. That same afternoon she moved her clothes into the guest bedroom. It was a shock when he slid the wardrobe doors open to confirm the fact. Those rows of silk and cotton dresses, he realized now, had been a luxury and a comfort, versions of herself lining up to please him. No longer. Even the hangers were gone. She smiled through dinner that night as she explained that she too intended to be “free,” and within the week she had started her affair. What was a man to do? He apologized one breakfast, told her his lapse meant nothing, made grand promises he sincerely believed he might keep. This was the closest he came to pleading. She said she did not mind what he did. This was what she was doing—and this was when she revealed the identity of her lover, the builder with the sin­ister name of Rodney Tarpin, seven inches taller and twenty years younger than the cuckold, whose sole reading, according to his boast, back when he was humbly grouting and beveling for the Beards, was the sports section of a tabloid newspaper. 
      An early sign of Beard’s distress was dysmorphia, or perhaps it was dysmorphia he was suddenly cured of. At last he knew himself for what he was. Catching sight of a conical pink mess in the misted full- length mirror as he came out of the shower, he wiped down the glass, stood full on, and took a disbelieving look. What engines of self-persuasion had let him think for so many years that looking like this was seductive? That foolish thatch of earlobe-level hair that but­tressed his baldness, the new curtain swag of fat that hung below his armpits, the innocent stupidity of swelling in gut and rear. Once he had been able to improve on his mirror self by pinning back his shoul­ders, standing erect, tightening his abs. Now human blubber draped his efforts. How could he possibly keep hold of a young woman as beautiful as she was? Had he honestly thought that status was enough, that his Nobel Prize would keep her in his bed? Naked, he was a dis­grace, an idiot, a weakling. Even eight consecutive  push- ups were beyond him. Whereas Tarpin could run up the stairs to the Beards’ master bedroom holding under one arm a fifty-kilo cement sack. Fifty kilos? That was roughly Patrice’s weight. 
      She kept him at a distance with lethal cheerfulness. These were additional insults, her singsong hellos, the matinal recital of domestic detail, and her evening whereabouts, and none of it would have mat­tered if he had been able to despise her a little and plan to be shot of her. Then they could have settled down to the brief, grisly disman­tling of a five-year childless marriage. Of course she was punishing him, but when he suggested that, she shrugged and said that she could just as easily have said the same of him. She had merely been waiting for this opportunity, he said, and she laughed and said that in that case she was grateful to him. 
      In his delusional state, he was convinced that just as he was about to lose her, he had found the perfect wife. That summer of 2000 she was wearing different clothes, she had a different look around the house—faded tight jeans, flip-flops, a ragged pink cardigan over a T-shirt, her blond hair cut short, her pale eyes a deeper agitated blue. Her build was slight, and now she looked like a teenager. From the empty rope- handled glossy carrier bags and tissue paper left strewn on the kitchen table for his inspection, he gathered she was buying herself new underwear for Tarpin to remove. She was thirty-four, and still kept the strawberries-and-cream look of her twenties. She did not tease or taunt or flirt with him—that at least would have been communication of a sort—but steadily perfected the bright indiffer­ence with which she intended to obliterate him. 
      He needed to cease needing her, but desire was not like that. He wanted to want her. One sultry night he lay uncovered on the bed and tried masturbating himself toward freedom. It bothered him that he could not see his genitalia unless his head was propped up on two pil­lows, and his fantasy was continually interrupted by Tarpin, who, like some ignorant stagehand with ladder and bucket, kept wandering onto the set. Was there another man on the planet apart from Beard attempting at this moment to pleasure himself with thoughts of his own wife just thirty feet away across the landing? The question emp­tied him of purpose. And it was too hot. 
      Friends used to tell him that Patrice resembled Marilyn Monroe, at least from certain angles and in a certain light. He had been happy to accept this status- enhancing comparison, but he never really saw it. Now he did. She had changed. There was a new fullness in her lower lip, a promise of trouble when she lowered her gaze, and her short­ened hair lay curled on her nape in a compelling, old-fashioned way. Surely she was more beautiful than Monroe, drifting about the house and garden at weekends in a haze of blond and pink and pale blue. What an adolescent color scheme he had fallen for, and at his age. 
      He turned  fifty- three that July, and naturally she ignored his birthday, then pretended in her jolly new style to remember it three days later. She gave him a kipper tie in  Day- Glo mint green, telling him the style was being “revived.” Yes, the weekends were the worst. She would come into a room where he was, not wishing to talk, but perhaps wanting to be seen, and she would look about in mild sur­prise before wandering off. She was evaluating everything afresh, not only him. He would see her at the bottom of the garden under the horse chestnut, lying on the grass with the newspapers, waiting in deep shade for her evening to begin. Then she would retire to the guest room to shower, dress, apply makeup and scent. As if reading his thoughts, she was wearing her lipstick red and thick. Perhaps Rodney Tarpin was encouraging the Monroe notion—a cliché Beard was now obliged to share. 
      If he was still in the house when she left (he tried so hard to keep busy at night), he found it irresistible to ameliorate his longing and pain by observing her from an upstairs window as she stepped into the evening air of Belsize Park and walked up the garden path—how disloyal of the unoiled garden gate to squeak in the same old way— and climbed into her car, a small and flighty black Peugeot of wanton acceleration. She was so eager, gunning the engine as she pulled away from the curb, that his douleur redoubled, because he knew she knew he was watching. Then her absence hung in the summer dusk like garden bonfire smoke, an erotic charge of invisible particulates that caused him to remain in position for many pointless minutes. He was not actually mad, he kept telling himself, but he thought he was get­ting a taste, a bitter sip. 
      What impressed him was his ability to think of nothing else. When he was reading a book, when he was giving a talk, he was really thinking of her, or of her and Tarpin. It was a bad idea to be at home when she was out seeing him, but since Lisbon he had no desire to look up old girlfriends. Instead he took on a series of evening lectures about quantum field theory at the Royal Geographical Society, joined radio and TV discussions, and at occasional events filled in for col­leagues who were ill. Let the philosophers of science delude them­selves to the contrary, physics was free of human taint; it described a world that would still exist if men and women and all their sorrows did not. In this conviction he was at one with Albert Einstein. 
      But even if he ate late with friends, he was usually home before her, and was forced to wait, whether he wanted to or not, until she returned, though nothing would happen when she did. She would go straight to her room, and he would remain in his, not wanting to meet her on the stairs in her state of postcoital somnolence. It was almost better when she stayed over at Tarpin’s. Almost, but it would cost him a night’s sleep. 
   At two a.m. one night in late July he was in his dressing gown on his bed listening to the radio when he heard her come in and imme­diately, without premeditation, enacted a scheme to make her jeal­ous and unsure and want to come back to him. On the BBC World Service a woman was discussing village customs as they affected domes­tic life among Turkish Kurds, a soothing drone of cruelty, injustice, and absurdity. Turning the volume down but keeping his fingers on the knob, Beard loudly intoned a fragment of a nursery rhyme. He figured that from her room she would hear his voice but not his words. As he finished his sentence, he turned up the volume of the woman’s voice for a few seconds, which he then interrupted with a line from the lecture he had given that night, and made the woman reply at greater length. He kept this going for five minutes, his voice, then the woman’s, sometimes artfully overlapping the two. The house was silent—listening, of course. He went into the bathroom, ran a tap, flushed the lavatory, and laughed out loud. Patrice should know that his lover was a wit. Then he gave out a muted kind of whoop. Patrice should know he was having fun. 
      He did not sleep much that night. At four, after a long silence suggestive of tranquil intimacy, he opened his bedroom door while keeping up an insistent murmur and went down the stairs backward, bending forward to beat out on the treads with his palms the sound of his companion’s footfall, syncopated with his own. This was the kind of logical plan only a madman might embrace. After seeing his com­panion to the hall, saying his good- byes between silent kisses, and closing the front door on her with a firmness that resounded through the house, he went upstairs and fell into a doze at last, after six, repeat­ing to himself softly, Judge me by my results. He was up an hour later to be sure of running into Patrice before she left for work and of letting her see how suddenly cheerful he was. 
      At the front door she paused, car keys in her hand, the strap of her book- crammed satchel cutting into the shoulder of her floral blouse. No one could doubt it: she looked shattered, drained, though her voice was as bright as ever. She told him that she would be inviting Rodney for dinner that evening, and that he would probably stay the night, and she would appreciate it if he, Michael, would stay clear of the kitchen. 
      That happened to be his day for traveling to the Center out at Reading. Dizzy with fatigue, he began the journey staring through his smeared train window at suburban London’s miraculous combi­nation of chaos and dullness and damning himself for his folly. His turn to listen to voices through the wall? Impossible; he would stay out somewhere. Driven from his own home by his wife’s lover? Impos­sible; he would stay and confront him. A fight with Tarpin? Impossi­ble; he would be stamped into the hallway parquet. Clearly he had been in no state to take decisions or to devise schemes, and from now on he must take into account his unreliable mental state and act conser­vatively, passively, honestly, and break no rules, do nothing extreme. 
   Months later he would violate every element of this resolution, but it was forgotten by the end of that day because Patrice arrived home from work without supplies (there was nothing in the fridge) and the builder did not come to dinner. He saw her only once that night, crossing the hallway with a mug of tea in her hand, looking slumped and gray, less the movie icon, more the overworked primary-school teacher whose private life was awry. Had he been wrong to berate himself on the train, had his plan actually worked, and in her sorrow had she been forced to cancel? 
      Reflecting on the night before, he found it extraordinary that after a lifetime of infidelities, a night with an imaginary friend was no less exciting. For the first time in weeks he felt faintly cheerful, even whistled a show tune as he microwaved his supper, and when he saw himself in the gold-leaf Sun King mirror in the cloakroom down­stairs, he thought his face had lost some fat and looked purposeful, with a shadow of cheekbone visible, and was, by the light of the thirty-watt bulb, somewhat noble, a possible effect of the sugary  cholesterol-lowering yogurt drink he was forcing himself to swallow each morning. When he went to bed, he kept the radio off and lay waiting with the light turned low for the remorseful little tap of her fingernails on his door. 
      It did not come, but he was not troubled. Let her pass a white night reexamining her life and what was meaningful, let her weigh in the scales of human worth a horny-handed Tarpin and his shrouded boat against ethereal Beard of planetary renown. The following five nights she stayed home, as far as he could tell, while he was commit­ted to his lectures and other meetings and dinners, and when he came in, usually after midnight, he hoped his confident footfalls gave the impression to the darkened house of a man returning from a tryst. 
      On the sixth night, he was free to stay in, and she chose to go out, having spent longer than usual under shower and hair dryer. From his place, a small, deeply recessed window on a first-floor half landing, he watched her go along the garden path and pause by a tall drift of ver­milion hollyhocks, pause as though reluctant to leave, and put her hand out to examine a flower. She picked it, squeezing it between newly painted nails of thumb and forefinger, held it a moment to con­sider, then let it drop to her feet. The summer dress—beige silk, sleeve­less, with a single pleat in the small of her back—was new, a signal he was uncertain how to read. She continued to the front gate, and he thought there was heaviness in her step, or at least some slackening of her customary eagerness, and she parted from the curb in the Peugeot at near-normal acceleration. 
      But he was less happy that night waiting in, confused again about his judgment, beginning to think he was right after all, his radio prank had sunk him. To help think matters through, he poured a scotch and watched football. In place of dinner he ate a liter tub of strawberry ice cream and prized apart a half kilo of pistachios. He was restless, both­ered by unfocused sexual need, and coming to the conclusion that he might as well be having or resuming a real affair. He passed some time turning the pages of his address book, stared at the phone a good while but did not pick it up. 
      He drank half the bottle and before eleven fell asleep fully dressed on the bed with the overhead light on, and for several seconds did not know where he was when, some hours later, he was woken by the sound of a voice downstairs. The bedside clock showed two-thirty. It was Patrice talking to Tarpin, and Beard, still fortified by drink, was in the mood to have a word. He stood groggily in the center of the bedroom, swaying a little as he tucked in his shirt. Quietly he opened his door. All the house lights were on, and that was fine; he was already going down the stairs with no thought for the consequences. Patrice was still talking, and as he crossed the hall toward the open sitting-room door he thought that he heard her laughing or singing and that he was about to break up a little celebration. 
      But she was alone and crying, sitting hunched forward on the sofa with her shoes lying on their sides on the long glass coffee table. It was an unfamiliar bottled, keening sound. If she had ever cried like this for him, it had been in his absence. He paused in the doorway, and she did not see him at first. She was a sad sight. A handkerchief or tissue was twisted in her hand, her delicate shoulders were bowed and shaking, and Beard was filled with pity. He sensed that a reconcilia­tion was at hand and that all she needed was a gentle touch, kind words, no questions, and she would fold into him and he would take her upstairs, though even in his sudden warmth of feeling, he knew he could not carry her, not even in both arms. 
      As he began to cross the room a floorboard creaked and she looked up. Their eyes met, but only for a second, because her hands flew up to her face and covered it as she twisted away. He said her name, and she shook her head. Awkwardly, with her back to him, she got up from the sofa, and walking almost sideways, she stumbled on the polar-bear skin, which tended to slide too easily on the polished wooden floor. He had come close to breaking an ankle once and had despised the rug ever since. He also disliked its leering, wide-open mouth and bared teeth yellowed by exposure to the light. They had never done anything to secure it to the floor, and there was no ques­tion of throwing it out because it was a wedding present from her father. She steadied herself, remembered to pick up her shoes, and, with a free hand covering her eyes, hurried past him, flinching as he reached out to touch her arm and beginning to cry again, more freely this time, as she ran up the stairs. 
      He turned off the lights in the room and lay on the sofa. Pointless to go after her when she did not want him, and it did not matter now, because he had seen. Too late for her hand to conceal the bruise below her right eye that spread across the top of her cheek, black fading to inflamed red at its edges, swelling under her lower lid, forcing the eye shut. He sighed aloud in resignation. It was inevitable, his duty was clear: he would have to get in his car now and drive to Cricklewood, lean on the doorbell until he had brought Tarpin from his bed, and have it out with him, right there beneath the coach lamp, and sur­prise his loathed opponent with an astonishing turn of speed and purpose. With eyes narrowing, he thought it through again, linger­ing on the detail of his right fist bursting through the cartilage of Tarpin’s nose, and then, with minor revisions, he reconsidered the scene through closed eyes, and did not stir until the following morn­ing, when he was woken by the sound of the front door closing as she left for work.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Beard loves physics in part because he believes that it is “free of human taint” (p. 10). In what ways does the novel complicate this belief? In what sense is Beard’s own work “tainted” by human entanglements?

2. The narrative structure of Solar is mostly chronological. What effects does McEwan achieve by occasionally departing from a straightforward chronological progression?

3. Beard claims he does not believe in the possibility of “profound inner change” (p. 77). Does he remain unchanged over the course of the novel?

4. How does McEwan manage to make Beard such a sympathetic character despite his many foibles? What are his most salient character flaws?

5. Why is Beard so attached to preserving what he calls his “unshareable core”? (p. 307). Why does he find it impossible to tell Melissa that he loves her? Why do his marriages keep falling apart?

6. In what ways is Solar a satirical novel? What are its main satirical targets? How, for example, do postmodernists come off in the book?

7. What are some of the funniest moments in Solar? How does McEwan create such brilliant comedic effects?

8. Look at the encounters between art and science in the novel, those occasions when Beard squares off with people from the humanities—novelists, folklorists, postmodern feminists, etc. Who gets the better of these confrontations? Is the book as a whole making a point through its depiction of these encounters?

9. What is the significance of the entropy in the boot room on board the ship that is holding the conference on climate change? What does this chaos and carelessness suggest about humanity’s ability to stop global warming?

10. Beard has a remarkably clear conscience; he is largely untroubled by his affairs and deceits, his theft of Aldous’s ideas, his framing of Tarpin, etc. Why is he so free of the guilt that might afflict most other men?

11. Several times during the course of the novel it appears that public infamy—born of journalists’ insatiable desire for controversy and Beard’s own willingness to step into it—will doom Beard’s career. What enables him to emerge from these disasters relatively unscathed? Will he be as lucky getting out of the mess he’s created at the very end of the book?

12. How surprising is the ending of the novel, particularly the final sentence? What is the swelling sensation that Beard feels in his heart as his daughter approaches him? What is likely to happen to Beard next?

13. How does the appendix containing the presentation speech for Beard’s Nobel Prize alter the way Beard is finally viewed? Why would McEwan choose to attach this appendix to the body of the novel?

14. Solar is in many ways a picaresque and at times farcical novel, and yet it also engages a theme of major importance—global warming. What is the connection between personal and planetary catastrophe in the novel, between the meltdown of Beard’s personal and professional life and the kind of greed, dishonesty, rationalization, and failure to face facts that has resulted in the climate crisis? What is the significance, in this context, of Beard’s inability to moderate his eating habits and his sexual pursuits?

15. What does Solar contribute to our understanding of climate change?

(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center e-newsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com.)

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3
( 158 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(44)

4 Star

(25)

3 Star

(29)

2 Star

(33)

1 Star

(27)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 158 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2010

    Solar by Ian McEwan

    Sorry to see the American critics so down on this novel, esp. NYT, where IM's readers probably go. Even McEwan's "not his best" is far better than most other writers best. He is a craftsman who doesn't patronize his readers and trusts that they bring something besides eyes to the page.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 6, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Not So Sunny

    Ian McEwan apparently has a variety of observations he wishes to make on contemporary issues, not the least of which is science. He is a very smart man, an accomplished writer, and deserves to be heard. So. Why does he choose a vehicle like the novel Solar, centered on an unlikable character who probably has turned most readers off by page 80? But it was around page 80 that I thought the book picked up a bit, and I was able to enjoy some of the dilemmas he created for Michael Beard, the unworthy scientist who's haphazard life is supposed to carry our interest. Yet for those who think the book is very funny or even a good read, I wish to say that I think McEwan would have better conveyed his ideas in a Sunday magazine piece and saved us all from what is essentially a boring novel.

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 5, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Books of this caliber don't come by often so best to savor it...

    Fiction of this caliber is too rare, but is all the more welcome for being so. This novel has a message, great prose, hilarious caricatures, and a laugh-at-aging-old-me sense of humility. The book felt like an amusing conversation with several bright friends where a number of the important discussion topics of our time are (lightly, lightly) raised: the "social construct" of genetic code, cap and trade, solar vs. wind, photosynthetic energy, government responsibility, the tentativeness of financing, the "coldhearted predation" of the media.

    In a time when one might plausibly argue the world is falling down around our ears, it is heartening and enervating to have a crusty old scold and storyteller spin a tale of human greed, folly, and outsized appetites, and how we manage to move ahead despite these things. The inexorability of the human aging process and the failures of self control we all experience is rendered so ridiculous it makes us laugh while we weep. But what I liked most was McEwan showing us that even the greatest among us is so fatally flawed and so repulsively human, that we are bound to fail--unless...and this is the genius in the equation...we cooperate.

    And how could it be otherwise? Even as free light from the sun falls on our heedless heads, we focus blearily on the changing weather through the thick glass bottoms of anesthesizing glasses of scotch. Only when weather threatens to drown or parch us do we half-heartedly sling our heavy buttocks out of our easy chairs to murmur, annoyed, that the government should do something, sue someone, drill somewhere. Folly, all.

    Art may after all be an important prod to action, but here I find it a resting place, a way-station on the weary slog to changing things we feel helpless to change, even though we can. It places the finest thinkers right down among us, so we can all claim some superiority, and perhaps even some responsibility. McEwan suggests, perhaps, that even self-interest plays a role in advancing the ball towards the goal, but shows how fragile our hopes, and how easily we can all come undone, lest we not be vigilant.

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 14, 2010

    Difficult to Like, But Clever

    Michael Beard won a Nobel Prize in physics as a young man and he has been coasting on it ever since.
    The book is told entirely from his point of view, in the third person. It is divided into three parts, starting in 2000, then moving to 2005 and ended in 2009. At the beginning, Michael is the head of a government funded program in Britain, that is working on alternative energy. He is rarely there and not really committed to its mission. He goes on excursions and to conferences, giving speeches, but not doing any real work. His marriage is ending, due mostly to his chronic infidelity. In the rest of the book, we see how he progresses, or progressively declines would be more accurate.
    I found it difficult to like the book, because Michael is such an unlikable character. Still the book is extremely funny in parts; I did laugh out loud. I was interested in the story and kept reading because I wanted to see how it ended.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 8, 2014

    TropicNight

    Name: TropicNight
    Age: 26 moons
    Gender: shecat
    Looks: a shimmering white pelt with topaz colored eyes.
    Personality: kind, cheerful, and quiet.
    Kin: none
    Crush: none
    Mate: none
    Rank: Warrior

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 1, 2014

    Aurorapaw's Bio, Type 1.

    Name: Aurora Borealis. No, is's Aurorapaw. Call me Aurora dor short. <p>Age: 10 moons. <p>Gender: Are you really that stupid? <p> Appearance: Electric blue eyes with shimmering silver fur. Hence the name "Aurora." She's also a fairly small cat. <p> Mate/Crush/Kits: No, no, no. She's training to be a medicine cat. <p>Living Kin: Scarpaw, Gingerpaw, Lionpaw, and Fangpaw. All searching for clans or hunting down previous clan. <p> Other: Ask.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 8, 2014

    Redsky bio ver. 1.7.1!

    Name:redsky*age:21 moons*apperance:red pelt with white underbelly, stiches from a tiger fight years ago, teal eyes.*kin:?*crush:none*mate:goldenflare*other:ask

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 29, 2014

    Skypaws bio

    Age 14 and a half moon she cat blue eyes and brown nd white fur likes hunting training and climing mothstripes apprentice dislikes twolegs thunderstorms and soaked trees

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 27, 2014

    Spy

    Name is Spy. Age is 24 moons. Gender is &male . Mate is none.Kits are none. Crush is Mothstripe. Kin is Spurrstar and her kits, Bronzepelt, and Duskbreeze.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 18, 2014

    Barkfur

    Barkfur is a dark brown tom with deep blue eyes. His brown fur is long and always mat-free. His tail is long and feather-like with a white tip on it. Barkfur is clan born, but his parents were traitors and left to become kittypets. He always gets dark looks from the other warriors, because they all suspect he will run off, too. He has a crush, but because of his history he is afraid to talk to her.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 3, 2014

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 15, 2014

    Rushingriver Bio .1

    NAME: Rushingriver~•~ AGE: about 19 moons~•~ GENDER: tom/&male ~•~ DESCRIPTION: dark gray with white highlights and points and blue-green eyes. He has three silver stripes that run down his spine, tapering at the forehead, then widening to frame an upside down triangle of silver. He is strong, great at climbing, hunting, but is an ok runner~•~ PERSONALITY: when you first meet him, he can be a little snappy, but he starts to become a really fun cat later on. He will obey his leader's orders no matter the cost. He loves kits, and can be a little shy. But when around his hard-earned friends, he is outgoing, courageous, fun, and kind~•~ STRENGTHS: fighting, climbing, hunting, talking ability~•~ WEAKNESSES: trusts a little to easily. Follows orders. Hates to kill without big reason. He is a great fighter, but hates wars~•~ CRUSH: yes. Two actually. Hint: she welcomed me to SolarClan. Hint: the other I have talked to the most, but really! There are no toms to be friends with!~•~ MATE: looking~•~ KITS: silly! I don't even have a mate!~•~ KIN: none that is known~•~ HISTORY: ask~•~ FAVORITE FOOD: sparrow~•~ SIGGY: working on it!~•~ OTHER: ask!
    <br>
    <p>
    Thanks for reading!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 15, 2014

    IceFlame

    Name:IceFlame•Age:20 moons•Gender:Male//Tom•Apperance:He is a Russian blue tom with alarg build and black tabby stripes. An silver steel eyes. •Personality: His sweet and kind buy he will snap if you wander into his past. But over all hw is sweet kind annd fun to be with.•Family:Shadowflare:mom,Foxteeth:father.•Mate:None •Crush:I have my eye on someone •Kits:None but you can hope! •Birth Clan:AshClan •Other Fetures:A scar across his leg,flank and shoulder,from Revolution days.•Skills:Hunting,Stragy,and Fighting.•

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 18, 2014

    Featherkit

    Name: Ash Ketchum. ((Featherkit if you can't see headlines)) <p>
    Age: 5 moons <p>
    Gender: Seriously? <p>
    Appearance: White with light grey and black splotches all over. My eyes are green with tiny blue lines all over. <p>
    Likes: Singing, hunting, herbs, hiding, and running. <p>
    Dislikes: Being hurt, crying, and fish. <p>
    Other: No.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 14, 2014

    WinterFlare's Biography Version 0.1

    Name- WinterFlare, if you can't see headlines.
    <p>
    Age- 15 Moons
    <p>
    Rank- Warrior
    <p>
    Gender- &female
    <p>
    Description- A fluffy, very light grey shecat. She has small white flurry-like spots. She has long legs and and fluffy tail. Her eyes are dark green, like a pine tree. She is a swift runner but a terrible swimmer. She smells similar to pine wood.
    <p>
    Personality- Quiet and calm-minded. She can keep a level head in complete chaos, and almost nothing can move her. She is strong willed and a skilled warrior. Loyal as a retreiver, brave as a lion.
    <p>
    History- She was born in Snowclan. Mentoured by NightWish, DoeSleet, and BrackenFall. She learned very fast and HailStar agreed to make her a warrior almost two moons early. The night she became a warrior, a storm ripped through camp and ki<_>lled her family, besides her brother, whose wearabouts she doesn't know. She wondered around for three moons, finally settling down in EclipseClan.
    <p>
    Mate- Nope.
    <p>
    Crush- Silly. I'm new here!
    <p>
    Kits- Simple math, people. Nope.
    <p>
    Kin- Mother: SwiftRiver dead. Father: SilverSnow dead. Brother: BraveStorm. Sisters: FallenFire and Rain.
    <p>
    Themesong- Battle: Survival by Eminem. Always: Sail by Awolnation.
    <p>
    Signature- Working on one now.
    <p>
    2,224 letters left!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 29, 2014

    Dominos amazing bio

    Name Domino age ? Gender She Family unknown Likes everything except dislikes fish rude cats cussing at little kids mean parents leather belts and suicidalls! Looks black with white spots a silver tiped tail and a black spot around left eye Other Ask me and read my story at res 12!!!!!!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 10, 2014

    Cloudhearts bio

    Name cloudheart but call me cloud white tom blue gold eyes personality quiet mate none crush no one history?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 9, 2014

    Dawnpool

    May i join? I want to be deputy.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 17, 2014

    Mothstripe's Super Amazing Bio Ver. 1.1.2!

    Name- Mothstripe the Magnificent. No, just Mothstripe.<p>Gender- She-cat, of course!<p>Age- Not super-young warrior but not old.<p>Appearance- Beige-cream with creamy white stripes, thicker than a normal tabby stripe. Yellow eyes. Semilong fur, creating a feathery tail.<p>Personality- Occasionally overhyper. Always puts a bit of humor into things. Extremely loyal to her Clan. And a bit like Luigi. Yes, the Man in Green. Yes, I am a a gamer irl. Yes, you have to deal with it.<p>Love life- She is kinda sorta looking for a mate, but with so few toms, all of them are nearly taken. Or at least crushed on by other shes. Never had mate/kits before.<p>History- I haven't made this up yet. Umm... Her parents are deeeeeeeeeaaa- No. That won't do. Hmm... it involves Twolegs. But she isn't a kittypet? I guess. That'll do, Donkey. That'll do.<p>Theme song- Smile Song Vocals in D-Flat Major And Also The Background Music is in 8Bit. Not the exact title but it's in a PooTube playlist by Vengeful Hang<_>over called Pitch Shifting Goodness.<p>Favorite Prey- fish, but it's secretly a secret. Shh!<p>Likes- fish, rain without lightning, the cooling feeling of stretching out on dirt or grass in the shadeon a hot day, references to fandoms, and fourth wall jokes.<p>Dislikes- Thunderstorms, intense heat, having to wake up quickly, and bad grammar, spelling, and puctuation.<p>Other: I feel there should be more to this bio. Oh yeah! Forgot to mention. Mothstripe's kinda the deputy. Oh wow. I was even thinking of putting that when I was writing the Personality section. Oh well. Goodbye and have a nice day. Close the door on your way out. Don't eat ramen noodles and drink chocolate milk in the same sitting unless you WANT intense stomach pain. Put the shower curtain inside the tub if you're taking a shower. Don't check on your rice unless you're sure it's done. And remember, kittens make your sad go away. :3

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 6, 2014

    LunaThorn

    Name:LunaThorn
    Age:18 moons
    Looks: she is a soft white shecat with sapphire blue eyes. She has a few black stripes across her back because she is part snow tiger.
    Personality: kind sweet and funny. Not always flirty
    Mate:looking
    Kits: none

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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