Ian McEwan’s latest book, On Chesil Beach, comes billed as a novel. In truth, though, it feels more like something the author pumped out to distract himself on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
Not that this is entirely a bad thing. There’s no doubt something impressive about the seeming casualness of it all, about McEwan’s breezy skill as a technician, the ease with which he tosses off 200 or so neatly plotted pages of story. If it’s craft you’re after, Chesil Beach will do the trick.
Beyond that, though, the returns begin to diminish. The book tells the story of Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting, a pair of British newlyweds spending their wedding night at a seaside hotel on the Dorset coast. Both virgins, and both well aware of what’s expected of them, sex is the evening’s omnipresent subtext. Edward is pleasantly nervous about the idea. Florence is something closer to horrified. After a bit of confused fumbling and an unfortunate incidence of premature ejaculation, the two find themselves unable to resolve their differing opinions of the matter and, well, never speak again.
To be fair, it’s better than that sounds. The ending has something of a potboiler’s implausibility to it, but McEwan does a credible — at times lovely — job with the couple’s wedding night, letting their nervous tenderness, false bravado, sincere caring, misunderstood history and misinterpreted signals push the book along. Less successful are the backstories that come interwoven with the hotel scenes. Though perhaps necessary, they seem at times almost perfunctory, with characters and conflicts given just enough stage time to demand more attention. Even less successful is the stab at historical context. Apparently unwilling to settle for a simple love story, McEwan puts the pair at the start of the 1960s, using their relationship as a proxy for the culture wars to come (she’s a classical pianist, he’s a John Mayall fan, etc.) Like so much of the novel, it’s not so much a bad idea as an underdeveloped one, leaving the book with an awkward schematic feel and the reader wishing they’d gotten either a little bit more or something rather less.