45 pages 1 hour read

Ian McEwan


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2022

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Summary and Study Guide


Lessons (2022) is a novel by British writer Ian McEwan. In it, Roland Baines, a single parent living in London in 1986, reflects on how a piano teacher, Miriam Cornell, sexually assaulted him when he was 11. Roland’s wife, Alissa, has also recently left him, and the novel combines a description of Roland’s life up until 2022 and his recollections of the past, tracking the effects that the sexual assault and his marriage ending have had on Roland’s life.

This guide uses the 2022 Penguin edition of the source text.

Content Warning: The source text depicts a nonconsensual sexual and romantic relationship between a minor and an adult.

Plot Summary

Lessons is divided into 12 chapters and three parts. In Chapters 1 and 2, Roland Baines, a single parent living in London in 1986, recalls an incident with a piano teacher, Miriam Cornell, when he was 11. Cornell pinched him on the thigh and hit him after he had made a mistake. A week later, Cornell kissed Roland and invited him to her house. Roland, in the present, explains how his wife had left him only a week before, and he receives a visit from an inspector who suspects that Roland murdered her.

In Chapters 3 and 4, Roland recalls the story of Alissa’s mother, Jane. Born in England in 1920, Jane had worked for a literary magazine. Just after the war she had gotten a commission to visit Munich to research and write a piece about the White Rose, an anti-Nazi group. While researching them, she was inspired to pursue a literary career. She also met Heinrich, Alissa’s father, marrying and staying in Germany. However, Jane had to give up her literary ambitions due to having a family. Roland recalls the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when he was 14, and how this had led him to visit Cornell’s house out of fear that he might die without having sex. They then started a sexual relationship.

In Chapters 5 and 6, Roland explains how Alissa was his teacher when he was learning German in 1977 but that he did not start seeing her until several years later. In 1979, Roland was going out with a French journalist, Mireille, whose father was a diplomat in Berlin. Roland traveled to East Berlin with her and befriended an East German couple there whom he then made repeated trips to see. The couple were arrested by the Ministry for State Security (Stasi). Roland’s euphoria at their release led him to attend a Bob Dylan concert in 1980, where he bumped into Alissa again and they exchanged addresses. Two years later she showed up at his door, and they began a relationship.

Three years after Alissa has left Roland, in 1989, Roland joins his friend Peter on a business trip to Berlin, just after the Berlin Wall has fallen. After visiting the remnants of the wall, Roland goes into a nearby café, where he notices Alissa. In Chapters 7 and 8, Roland approaches Alissa, and they talk. Alissa explains that she left Roland because she wanted to avoid her mother’s fate. Alissa also gives Roland a copy of the novel she has written, The Journey. Roland reads the novel, which is based on the trip across Europe taken by her mother.

Roland recalls the summer of 1964. Roland had failed his O-levels, and Cornell had invited him to stay with her. Three days before his 16th birthday, Cornell proposed that they go to Edinburgh to get married. When Roland was hesitant about the proposal, they split up.

In 1995, five years after meeting Alissa in Berlin, Roland is planning to marry a longtime friend, Daphne. Two years later, though, Daphne tells Roland that since he seems unsure about marriage she is going back to her ex-husband, Peter.

In Chapters 9 to 12, in 2001, Roland gets a call from the police, encouraging him to press charges against Cornell. Roland confronts Cornell, who justifies how she treated Roland by saying that she had just had her heart broken at the time. Nine years later, in 2010, Roland proposes to Daphne, and she accepts. However, only days later she is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Seven years after Daphne’s death, Roland prepares to scatter her ashes in a place in the Lake District, which they had visited. However, as Roland is about to do this, Peter appears, fights Roland, and then scatters Daphne’s ashes.

In 2020, Roland receives a call from Alissa’s ex-agent saying that she wants to see him. When Roland visits her in Germany, she denies that a character in her latest novel, a husband who beats his wife, is based on Roland. Alissa also reveals that she is dying, and that Roland was the only man she ever loved.