It’s going to be difficult to talk about this book, Lessons (2022) without giving away too much of the plot; no spoilers. I’ll try.
The story is about Roland Baines and with a title of Lessons, it’s appropriate that it begins with a lesson: a piano lesson, but this one has lifelong repercussions.
The story isn’t linear but it progresses like a complex cable-knit from that piano lesson when he was 14 years old right into his early 70s.
The writing is dense and not conducive to the one and a half page read in bed before you go to sleep. This book demands your time and attention. It’s also a bit of a history lesson as world events impinge on Roland’s life from the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, through the fall of the Berlin Wall 1989 to the lockdowns of the 2020 pandemic. Roland was born in 1948, a real Baby Boomer, but only a few years before me; there’s little bits of my history that match Roland’s and those little bits are mainly reflected in his mistakes. It’s Roland’s mistakes – or, if you like, the lessons he didn’t learn – that lay down the path of Roland’s life.
For readers of Roland’s age you too will, I predict, see little bits of your own history as we all can’t be immune to the world and what goes on in it.
Roland’s life, in its teenage beginnings, has enormous potential as a pianist, a tennis player, and as a writer. What he does with that potential and how those choices affect him and those around him make up the spine of the story.
There is, of course, the piano teacher, Miriam, then his first wife Alissa and her German family, his only child, Lawrence, his second wife, Daphne, and an unknown brother, Robert, are all dragged along by the history around them; some do well, others do not.
After his trite little book, Nutshell (2016), which I thought was way below par, so much so that I didn’t bother with his next one, Machines Like Me (2019) Lessons is a return to the classic standard of his Enduring Love (1997), Atonement (2001), Saturday (2005), and The Children Act (2014). It’s not a return to his early work which was full of darkness and the macabre, but it’s a mature and serious work that delves into what it really takes for a person to fulfil their dreams and how easy it is for those dreams to turn to smoke.
The complexities if its timeline annoyed me a little in the first third, but there is a rhythm there you need to tap into but once you do the book rollicks along to its conclusion; well it did for this reader, anyway. I loved it! (But, please, make time for it and attend to it wholeheartedly)
Lessons is his most autobiographical work, about a quarter he says, and you can hear him talking about the book and his writing life here, in a short but fascinating video from the CBS Sunday Morning program.
You can purchase the book in various formats here.