Ian McEwan’s Lessons opens with a piano teacher groping her student. She is 25 years old, and the boy is 11. Her cold fingers pinch the inside of his upper thigh and travel up his shorts to his underwear. As is typical, the victim blames himself. He’s newly arrived at his English boarding school and misses his mother tremendously. He’s textbook, and Miriam begins grooming him.
Roland is 14 when the Cuban Missile Crisis happens. Fear and loneliness compel him to ride a bike to Miriam’s house in the nearby village. She doesn’t seem surprised when he shows up unannounced. Roland is escorted upstairs to her bedroom, and Miriam tells him what she expects. As if he is a child. Because he is. After they have sex, he is even more under her control. “She had always frightened him. He had not forgotten how cruel she could be. Now it was more complicated, it was worse and he had made it worse.”
Over the next two years, Miriam manipulates Roland. She is always the teacher, and he is always the pupil. His schoolwork suffers. He loses touch with friends. The night before his sixteenth birthday Miriam tells Roland they will be traveling to Scotland in the morning to get married. This scares him more than the Cuban Missile Crisis did. When he flees, Miriam yells “You’ll spend the rest of your life looking for what you’ve had here.”
She’s not wrong. The trauma from this relationship has “rewired his brain.” He drops out of school. He floats from one job to another, from one relationship to another. Finally, in his thirties, he meets Alyssa. They get married and have a son, but the marriage falls apart.
Alyssa dreams of being her generation’s greatest writer, but she’s sinking. Being a wife and mother is suffocating. She can’t be the writer she wants to be so she leaves. Years later, she writes novels and they’re brilliant. Roland wonders how he could have been married to a genius and not realized it. Is Miriam to blame? Is he still a victim?
Roland’s life story (from the 1950s to 2020) is deftly told. McEwan is a deeply humane writer, and he creates fascinating characters with complex motivations. The women are far more interesting than the men, but this shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows Shakespeare or women.
McEwan is generous and empathetic with all his characters – even Miriam. That is a testament to his genuine skill as a writer. But there’s a problem. Roland does eventually (late in middle age) confront Miriam. This is a pivotal moment, and its resolution is humane only if Miriam hasn’t abused other children. And we have no reason for believing this is the case. What if she is a serial pedophile? The fact that no one thinks to ask this, especially after all the scandals uncovered during the 1980s and later, is a glaring problem in an otherwise masterfully told story.
Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor