- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 2, 2007


By Ian McEwan

Doubleday, $22, 203 pages

Ian McEwan opens his latest novel with some facts: “They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.”

What readers find in the next few hundred pages of “On Chesil Beach” is a map of the threads and turns — contortions really — that Edward and Florence experience on their way to the marriage bed and life beyond. But first they must get through the bland meal (“this was not a good moment in the history of English cuisine”), served in their hotel room on the Dorset coast by two local youths every bit as awkward as they are.

As the pair grow closer and apart, and closer again, in several rounds of flirtation, the heat is on. This smart book is also a remarkably sensuous one, and on its deepest level, Mr. McEwan conveys just how random the interplay of love, luck and circumstance can be along the road toward intimacy.

The narrative is shaped such that as things progress, Mr. McEwan includes narrative digressions that provide details about their early meeting and courtship. As readers get to know Edward and Florence as they grow into lovers and people of not always compatible tastes (she loves classical music and is counting on building a career as a concert violinist; he prefers pre-Beatles rock ‘n’ roll and hopes to become a history professor), the era of their coming of age also takes on new significance.

It is 1962 when the book opens. Mr. McEwan reminds readers that this is Harold Macmillan’s England, a time when an older generation of Britons still retained some of their wartime habits like listening to the “wireless for the main bulletin,” and members of the younger generation watched the progress of “the arms race and the need for a test-ban treaty.”

Edward and Florence “would be voting for the first time in the next general election and were keen on the idea of a Labour landslide as great as the victory of 1945. In a year or two, the older generation that still dreamed of empire must surely give way to politicians like Gaitskell, Wilson, Crosland — new men with a vision of a modern country where there was equality and things actually go done. If America could have an exuberant and handsome President Kennedy, then Britain could have something similar — at least in spirit, for there was no one quite so glamorous in the Labour Party.”

But in their hotel room, current events inevitably yielded to more pressing matters. Mr. McEwan writes, “they were adults at last, free to do as they chose.” Nevertheless, constrained by “the thousand unacknowledged rules that still applied” they finished the dinner that had been brought to them in their room with “its view of a portion of the English Channel, and Chesil Beach with its infinite shingle.”

“Their plan was to change into rough shoes after supper and walk on the shingle between the sea and the lagoon known as the fleet and if they had not finished the wine, they would take that along, and swig from the bottle like gentlemen of the road.”

But not all goes as planned.

They both believed that marriage would bring them happiness, but from the earliest pages of the book, there are signs that all is not bliss, nor will it be.

They both long for the other. “When she was before the music standing the rehearsal room in London, or in her room at Oxford, with Edward sprawled on the bed, watching and desiring her, she held herself gracefully, with back straight and head lifted proudly, and read the music, with a commanding almost haughty expression that stirred him. That look had such certitude, such knowledge of the path to pleasure.”

Likewise, “[a]t the age of twenty-two, she had no doubt that she wanted to spend the rest of her life with Edward Mayhew.” But she was less comfortable with longing and sexual stirrings than Edward, and during an early embrace, “she felt pinioned and smothered, she was suffocating, she was nauseous.”

Edward might worry about what euphemistically is referred to in the book as “arriving too soon.” But Florence, carrying more existential baggage, was still trying to unravel what she was feeling — “the secret affair between disgust and joy”

As the narrative moves toward its quite literal climax, Mr. McEwan takes time to fill in the details of their lives. Edward grew up on the outskirts of Oxford, where his father is the headmaster of the local school. Edward’s mother, brain-damaged from a freak accident when Edward was a boy, exerts the thinnest control over the untidy household.

Florence, the daughter of a successful businessman and an Oxford academic, hails from a more conventional background. Her love of the arts and her growing skill as a violinist stand in contrast to the country-raised Edward, who knows the names of plants and how to hold his own in a fight.

They could look in each other’s eyes and find love, and they expressed such. But at the moment of the consummation of the marriage, when the tension of the moment subverts the act of lovemaking, each is challenged to find the resources to deal with what happens.

Once more, as he did in such earlier novels as “Atonement” and “Saturday,” Mr. McEwan explores the ragged terrain of human relationships. This is a slight book in its way, and by its conclusion one does wish for more time with these complex and vulnerable characters, though, in truth the sexual tension of the book could not have been sustained for one page more.

In the end, there are questions:

“From the solid darkness of the hills, carrying right across the Fleet, came the song of a single bird, convoluted and fluting. By the prettiness of the song and the time of the day, she would have guessed it to be a nightingale. But did nightingales live by the sea? Did they sing in July? Edward knew but she was in no mood to ask.”

It will be left to readers to find out if she did. And if, indeed, he did. What a book.

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