Ian McEwan is a brilliant storyteller and his novels are often masterpieces. Lessons is a highly enjoyable and engaging novel, interrogating the lifelong damage caused by abuse and the sacrifices an artist must make to achieve transcendence.
As the story begins, Roland Baines’ wife, Alissa, has left him and their young son, Lawrence, in London, without word of when she will return. Her absence is investigated by the police but eventually it becomes clear that that she has made the choice to pursue her writing, abandoning her family.
As the novel stretches over several decades, and Alissa establishes herself as one of the most insightful writers of the century, the possible sentimentality of motherhood is interrogated and rejected when Lawrence tries to find his mother in his 20s.
For Roland, the loss of his wife triggers reflection upon an earlier, transformative loss. Being sent to boarding school as a very young boy, he ponders his parents’ relationship and their dislocation during war-time service, including his own mother’s abandonment of children from her first marriage. However, at the core of this novel is his abuse at the hands of his music teacher, Miriam, which begins in his piano lessons when he is 11 and ends when he extricates himself from her control at 16. By his own assessment, he drifts through life due to the damage caused by her early destructive shaping of his personality and ambitions.
The eventual confrontation between abuser and abused does not resolve the questions that have been raised for Roland or heal the damage that has been done to his life or his relationships with others. Lessons is a nuanced consideration of the impacts of abuse on an adult and how a person survives through the lasting impact of harm caused.