ON CHESIL BEACH
By Ian McEwan
Doubleday. 203 pp. $22
In the summer of 1962, Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting are married in the English university city of Oxford. The wedding "had gone well; the service was decorous, the reception jolly, the send-off from school and college friends raucous and uplifting." Now they are alone, dining "in a tiny sitting room on the first floor of a Georgian inn" at Chesil Beach, on the English Channel. They are happy, yet almost indescribably nervous: "They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible."
This breathtaking novel, Ian McEwan's 11th, tells the story of that night. Like a number of his previous books -- among them The Cement Garden, The Comfort of Strangers, Black Dogs and Amsterdam -- On Chesil Beach is more a novella than a novel, weighing in at around 40,000 words, but like those other books it is in no important sense a miniature. Instead, it takes on subjects of universal interest -- innocence and naiveté, self-delusion, desire and repression, opportunity lost or rejected -- and creates a small but complete universe around them. McEwan's prose is as masterly as ever, here striking a remarkably subtle balance between detachment and sympathy, dry wit and deep compassion. It reaffirms my conviction that no one now writing in English surpasses or even matches McEwan's accomplishment.
"It pained him tremendously," McEwan writes of Edward, "that their wedding night was not simple, when their love was so obvious." Then: "And what stood in their way? Their personalities and pasts, their ignorance and fear, timidity, squeamishness, lack of entitlement or experience or easy manners, then the tail end of a religious prohibition, their Englishness and class, and history itself. Nothing much at all." They are in truth an odd couple. Both are 22 years old, smart and well educated, but different in important ways that probably are reconcilable, but only if they are able to talk honestly to each other.
In no respect is this more important than in their attitudes toward and expectations of sex. Edward has no experience to speak of, but he fairly bursts with desire and quite specifically desire for Florence, "this cheerful, pretty, formidably intelligent woman" with whom he is positively besotted. They have had their adventures in petting, he a considerably more enthusiastic participant than she, but these have left them not much less ignorant than before. As he contemplates his first time in the marital bed, Edward's "specific worry, based on one unfortunate experience, was of overexcitement, of what he had heard someone describe as 'arriving too soon.' " Florence is something else altogether:
"Where he merely suffered conventional first-night nerves, she experienced a visceral dread, a helpless disgust as palpable as seasickness. For much of the time, through all the months of merry wedding preparation, she managed to ignore this stain on her happiness, but whenever her thoughts turned toward a close embrace -- she preferred no other term -- her stomach tightened dryly, she was nauseous at the back of her throat. . . . Florence suspected that there was something profoundly wrong with her, that she had always been different, and that at last she was about to be exposed. Her problem, she thought, was greater, deeper, than straightforward physical disgust; her whole being was in revolt against a prospect of entanglement and flesh; her composure and essential happiness were about to be violated. She simply did not want to be 'entered' or 'penetrated.' Sex with Edward could not be the summation of her joy, but was the price she must pay for it."
Almost from the novel's first sentence, the reader's heart aches for these two young people. They are so earnest, so clumsy, so naive, so desperately in love. But they seem incapable of reaching across the great divide that proper society placed between unmarried men and women four and a half decades ago, incapable of talking through their desires and fears. Instead, they cuddle innocently (though Edward certainly wishes it were otherwise) and talk about things that don't really matter, sedulously avoiding what is on their minds because they simply don't know how to put it into words that -- so at least they think -- will not humiliate them.
Thus it is hardly surprising that their wedding night proceeds slowly and awkwardly. They make small talk at the dinner table and silently worry that the waiters, who in fact are discreet and polite, are secretly laughing at them. They blanch at the inedible food that is set before them ("This was not a good moment in the history of English cuisine, but no one much minded at the time, except visitors from abroad"), and they never follow through on Florence's suggestion of a moonlit walk on the beach. At last they stumble toward the bed, where they lie tensely, still clothed, and make tentative efforts to please each other. Edward caresses Florence shyly yet insistently, and to her surprise she responds:
"For the first time, her love for Edward was associated with a definable physical sensation, as irrefutable as vertigo. Before, she had known only a comforting broth of warm emotions, a thick winter blanket of kindness and trust. That had always seemed enough, an achievement in itself. Now here at last were the beginnings of desire, precise and alien, but clearly her own; and beyond, as though suspended above and behind her, just out of sight, was relief that she was just like everyone else. . . . It was undeniable: she was not a separate subspecies of the human race. In triumph, she belonged among the generality. . . . For all the novelty, she was not in a state of wild abandonment, nor did she want to be hurried toward one. She wanted to linger in this spacious moment, in these fully clothed conditions, with the soft brown-eyed gaze and the tender caress and the spreading thrill. But she knew that this was impossible, and that, as everyone said, one thing would have to lead to another."
What occurs thereafter must be left for the reader to discover. Tension and surprise are constants in McEwan's fiction, and never more so than in On Chesil Beach. Suffice it to say that the turns taken are at once surprising and totally true to human nature. Love is rarely easy, notwithstanding all the exhilaration it arouses, and it is perhaps never more difficult than in its physical expression. In that act the vulnerabilities of each partner are on display to the other in ways so intimate and revealing as almost literally to bare the soul. In their different ways both Edward and Florence fear just that, and the ultimate confrontation is devastating.
What makes On Chesil Beach so heartbreaking -- no other word will do -- is that it does not have to end as it does. None of this is foreordained. People almost always have choices when they come to decisive moments in their lives. These choices aren't always clear and certainly aren't always easy to make, but there's no getting around it: They have to be made. Suffice it to say that in the decisive moment, both Edward and Florence take the wrong direction. What each person does is no better or worse than what the other does, for this is a story unencumbered by heroes or villains, bad guys or good guys. Edward and Florence simply are ordinary human beings trying to do what they think is right and/or necessary, and they are too innocent and ignorant -- and in their own ways too proud -- to follow wise courses. What a terrible pity. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.