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Ian McEwan's latest work is very short compared to his previous novels, more reminiscent of his earlier work. It tells the story of the wedding night of Edward and Florence, putting it in context by relating both their pasts, and at the end, telescoping to the future, showing the implications of that night for the rest of Edward's life. Both in their early twenties, the newlyweds are both virgins. The novel takes us through the night in gruesome detail, conveying the crippling awkwardness that ruins the night. The year is 1962, so a natural conclusion is that their sexual problems are a result of the repressed culture of the time, when people supposedly didn't talk about sex as much as we do now. However, it's clear that Florence's friends are much more sexually free and open than she is, so the reader wonders whether there's a deeper reason for her revulsion at Edward's nakedness. There's a brief suggestion that Florence may have been abused, and in the bonus conversation with McEwan at the end of the audiobook, he reveals that in an earlier draft, he had made this more definite. In the finished version, the reasons for Florence's unreadiness for sexual relations are left unsaid. Yet it is clear that Edward's inexperience makes him unable to help or comfort her, and the evening ends in angry confrontation. If only he were less impatient, more able to talk to Florence about her fears, more skilled at comforting her and showing his love, it would have been so much easier. The consequences of the couple's ineptitude that night are irreversible.
The most memorable scenes in On Chesil Beach are the sexual ones between Edward and Florence, in which he clumsily tries to get her to relax and let him get to her. Each moment is appallingly cringeworthy. The scenes would be funny if they were not so uncomfortable. McEwan's skill as an author manages to depict the night so vividly and sympathetically that there is no temptation to laugh. His language, as always carefully crafted, is slightly elaborate and clinical, and occasionally suggestive of 1950's formal phrasings; (for example "he was no pugilist"). The sections where McEwan sets out their family histories and their meeting and subsequent engagement as students at Oxford University help to fill out the meanings of each moment that night, but since this work is so short, all the detail serves no function to advance the plot. Having all the background makes the book more believable, yet the details all seem rather arbitrary. For instance, it does not seem to make any difference that Florence's mother is a philosophy professor rather than an accountant or a cook: the main function of her job is to help explain her remoteness from Florence and the young woman's discomfort with her physicality. Florence's main love in life (apart from her new husband) is classical music, and she devotes most of her energy to the string quartet she has formed. Similarly, that Edward's father is a school headmaster and his mother has brain damage seem to play little role in the story, except possibly that his mother's mental problems provide a possible explanation for his lack of ability to open up to Florence in a healthy way.
A different sort of question comes up in the interview with McEwan at the end of the 4-CD set: how much difference did the sexual revolution in the later 1960s and early 1970s make to people's lives? If this story had been set in 1982 or 2002, would it have to have a different ending? Of course there's no simple answer to this question: on the one hand it is clear that culture has changes in the last few decades, and that these two young people are a product of their era. Yet on the other hand, many of the pressures on young men and women to conform to gender roles and their views of marital obligations are not really very different now from what they were then. Inevitably the story makes us consider the question, and it is striking how difficult it is to answer. As much as we like to think we are progressive and enlightened now, it isn't so clear that we have really advanced much. I imagine that most people will be able to identify to some extent with the terrible discomfort of the wedding night, even if their own wedding nights were far more enjoyable. Indeed, surprisingly, the 2007 comedy movie Superbad about the sexual yearnings of American teenagers, despite being set in an entirely different time and culture, reflects many of the same insecurities of young men and women and the interaction of their gender roles as On Chesil Beach.
McEwan's own performance of his book in this unabridged version is strong. He is a practiced reader of his own work. While the reading is a little less dramatic and is slightly muted in tone compared to readings by professional actors, it is nicely done. The fact that the author is reading his own work also makes it a more intimate experience for the listener, because it gives the listener a more direct link to the source of the writing.
© 2007 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.