I read an excerpt from the opening pages of On Chesil Beach in The New Yorker some time ago, found it intriguing, looked forward to the book, and finally got around to reading it.
Successful though he is, McEwan is an on-again-off-again author for me. His Booker prize Amsterdam, I thought was pretentious and overdone. I prized Atonement, was not thrilled that Hollywood did away with the deliciously ambiguous ending. I was generally positive about Saturday, though I found some of the plot elements contrived. And so on. He’s wonderful at getting inside the head of artists and professionals. A surgeon, for example, in Saturday, a composer in Amsterdam. And his forte–his triple-forte when he’s on–is getting inside the heads of his characters, moment-by-moment, emotional beat by beat. In that respect On Chesil Beach is fff.
When I first saw the New Yorker excerpt, I thought it was set around 1910 because the whole idea of sex is so charged, the couple’s ignorance, so extreme, the discussion of IT so daunting. However, it’s actually set in 1962, and in questioning a few contemporaries, I find that living in Berkeley distorted my 60‘s self in relation to the rest of the world. We were less about doing than talking, but we could talk, even between sexes. Apparently, my environment was quite different from Oxford or the midwest, and this sex taboo-terror was common elsewhere.
We join Edward and Florence in a seaside honeymoon suite on their wedding night. Both are deeply in love. Both are virgins, and both are exceedingly nervous about the evening’s necessities. They want to please each other and are worried they’ll bungle things. Edward is typically eagerly male to get on with it, but also concerned about disgracing himself, mostly about “arriving early.” A couple of his awkward advances during their courtship had disappointing results vis him and his sensitive bride. Florence has had only a crude handbook and her girl friends’ overheard giggly conversations to guide her. She’s never asked questions, doesn’t have a framework or vocabulary to even approach a discussion of the subject.
McEwan leaves us there after that introduction and takes us back to the couples’ childhoods. She rich, he poor. She a classical musician (violin), he a rock-and-roll-loving history major. Then we come back to the hotel room. Then we go back to the story of their meeting and some more biographical information. Quite a tease, this McEwan. Finally, we get to the crucial scene, and . . . Well, I’m a bit of a tease, too, so . . .
McEwan enters the thoughts of Edward and Florence to an extent that no other author I can think of can do–maybe Barry Unsworth or Toni Morrison, but not quite in this way. In the French kissing scene, for example, he describes Florence’s thoughts as Edward’s tongue presses on a hollow where she’s had a wisdom tooth removed. It’s a place her own tongue often goes when she’s focused on a problem. So strange that anyone else could occupy that space. And that single instance in McEwen’s gentle and suggestive hands, comes to imply mountains about their relationship.
Everything that happens in this short novel leads toward and away from that night. By extension, the attitudes and expectations we carry into crucial situations influence, if not dictate, their outcomes. And those outcomes, in turn, influence, if not dictate, the future tone and terms of the relationships of those involved. Easy enough to say, but devilishly difficult to express artistically in a way that helps the reader experience this mystery as it happens. McEwan is a devilishly skilled artist, and I marveled over and over again at how solid and true his writing is. This is a brief gem of a book. I have a slight quarrel with his choice of ending, but it’s probably my problem, not his. I won’t describe the “quarrel” because it would take away the tease and I wouldn’t want to destroy your suspense.