It's 1962, and in a small hotel on the English Channel, Edward and Florence are nervous on their wedding night. He's ragingly horny but wants to be gentle; she's revolted by the very idea of sex but wants to please her partner. Neither of them has any idea what a calamity they're about to bring upon themselves, making On Chesil Beach a brilliant medley of misunderstandings and unintended consequences.
Characteristically, McEwan shifts time frames from present discomforts to past joys to future recollections. Writing about a repressive era, he doesn't shy from sexual talk, even managing to make it both literate and hilarious. For Florence, who's a musician and a virgin, French kissing is "a hideous mute duet," a repulsive, precursory act of penetration. For his part, Edward's passionate intensity is undercut by the sudden awareness that he's standing "half-naked among the ruins of his wedding night," holding his own underpants. An orgasmic wail, McEwan writes, resembles the sound a waiter makes when he's "about to drop a towering pile of soup plates."
McEwan also interweaves commentary on class conflict, medieval cults, nuclear disarmament and musical appreciation into his tale. Yet one of the couple's secrets is scarcely hinted at, as if British propriety were continuing to bury the truth. McEwan compels readers to participate in the repressiveness of a culture that hadn't yet freaked out in the Summer of Love.
Still, the lingering impression left by reading On Chesil Beach is of having visited two opposing minds, of having rummaged around inside them until their contents are thoroughly known. Florence and Edward made some bad assumptions, and now they're stuck with the consequences; readers will feel confident they know why. Readers will also feel sure that they know better than these foolish young lovers. Except that we don't. In our futile grasping after the correct course of action, McEwan's short novel helps us see, with sadness, ourselves.