Three years ago, The New Yorker's Winter Fiction issue printed a lengthy except from Ian McEwan's novella On Chesil Beach, which was about to be published. I eagerly looked forward to it; at the time, McEwan's Atonement was my favorite novel in the entire world.
Among the many virtues of Atonement is that it is one of the great love stories of modern literature, with one of the few sex scenes that doesn't seem like a candidate for the annual Bad Sex in Fiction award. As a bookish but secretly romantic teenager, I found the scene between Robbie and Celia in the library to be extremely seductive. It's not gratuitous, either--it has to be genuinely sexy in order for the novel to work.
So when The New Yorker advertised their Chesil Beach excerpt with some titillating tagline like "Ian McEwan narrates a 1960s wedding night," I secretly hoped for another Atonement-quality sex scene. Well, the joke was on me. As the very first sentence of On Chesil Beach proves, this is a story about bad sex, told in painstaking detail--an anti-erotic tale.
Last week I finally read On Chesil Beach in its entirety--it's a short work, 39 thousand words--and I can't help but feel that McEwan is deliberately repudiating his earlier novel. It would be a very typical thing for him to do--as Atonement proves, he's a master of pulling the rug out from underneath the reader. There are enough parallels between the lovers in Atonement and the lovers in Chesil Beach for me to think that McEwan expects the reader's memories of Atonement to provide a subtext for the events of Chesil. Both works are set in the past and teddibly English. In both cases, the characters having sex are just out of university. The girl is extremely virginal, the boy slightly (but only slightly) more experienced. The girl is from a cultivated upper-middle-class family; the boy is a working-class striver whose intelligence is his ticket to higher social status.
In a way, therefore, On Chesil Beach is McEwan performing an act of literary criticism on himself. "You were turned on by my sex scene in Atonement?" he seems to say. "Don't you realize that that was fiction and fantasy? Here's how it really would have happened."
Anyway, On Chesil Beach is a well-crafted anti-erotic narrative about the wedding night of Florence and Edward in an English seaside hotel. The central problem is that while Florence loves Edward, she is repelled by anything sexual (even French-kissing), and knows she is powerless to articulate her fear and disgust. Edward is aware that his bride hasn't liked physical affection, but he assumes it will all change now that they are married, and is eager to lose his own virginity. On that night, however, everything goes wrong in the worst possible way; from the start, the atmosphere in the chilly and antiseptic hotel room is one of unease.
McEwan fills out the novella with some flashbacks about how Florence and Edward first met, their respective upbringings, etc. I was not as fond of these parts--they are straight narration (the omniscient McEwan telling us "Edward's mother was like this" or "Florence's string quartet was like that") with little action or dialogue to enliven them. In these passages, the characters feel artificial, constructed to represent ideas about sexual attitudes and class divides in 1962. But Florence and Edward come to life whenever McEwan is describing their thoughts, feelings, and actions on that fateful wedding night. (Similarly, I tend to think that the best parts of Mad Men are when the writers explore and deepen the characters' relationships, not when they go "Oh my god, the '60s!") Their conversation on the beach toward the end of the novella, in which almost every line of dialogue has either Florence or Edward saying the worst possible thing they could say at that moment, is especially well done. Atonement is about one big, horrible lie that ruins a life; On Chesil Beach is about how lives can also be ruined by an accumulation of little mistakes.
At first there seems to be no explanation for Florence's sexual unresponsiveness, but eventually the narrator hints that Florence's father abused her when she was younger. (I wasn't just imagining this, either: according to a recent New Yorker profile of McEwan, this was even more blatant in earlier drafts.) Not sure I agree with this choice; it seems so pat, like a diagnosis. I think I'd be more interested in reading about a woman whose fear and abhorrence of sex wasn't linked to childhood trauma--at any rate, that would be more original. This also means that the narrator is unreliable or disingenuous: the first line of On Chesil Beach says "they were both virgins," but maybe Florence isn't a virgin, right? And if we can't trust the first sentence, can we trust anything else the omniscient narrator says--though he seems so perfectly candid?