It is 1962 and sex, as Philip Larkin put it, would not be invented for another year. A little late for him, and for Edward and Florence.
It is their wedding night. The ceremony has passed off well and they are now in a hotel on Chesil Beach in Dorset. They are about to step into the adulthood that married life bestows, to launch themselves, “to love and set each other free.”
But. With McEwan there has to be a but, and it’s a big one. They are almost strangers, and they approach the act of love with fear and trepidation. The anticipation is almost unbearable – for them and for us - as, throughout almost all this short novel, they edge painfully, tremulously towards consummation.
As ever, McEwan’s meticulous observation, the care and skill with which he draws his characters, their interaction, their surroundings and the minutiae of events, is mesmerising.
As two youths in dinner jackets serve a lumpen meal in the honeymoon suite, we feel Florence and Edward’s inhibition and embarrassment. When the boys finally leave there is nothing to stop them abandoning the cooling beef and congealing gravy and running off along the beach. But they don’t. They are trapped: bound by convention, tormented by expectation. They cannot leave the meal because it would be childish: “And being childlike was not yet honourable, or in fashion.”
The more McEwan tells us about them, the more conscious we are that things could go horribly wrong on this night.
She in a gifted musician from an Oxford academic family. He is a countryman, a physical being. Sex is what he most wants and she most dreads. But he feels as much terror as she as they at last confront “that awesome experience that seemed as remote from daily life as a vision of religious ecstasy, or even death itself.”
As they approach the final act of love it is as exasperating as watching Tim Henman stumbling through Wimbledon. And, rather as Tim’s supporters anxiously cry “Come on Tim” when things look shaky, you almost feel like murmuring your encouragement to this couple: “Come on Edward. Come on Florence”
It takes them 20 pages from Florence at last feeling the first stirrings of desire to the final set. For much of that time we dare to hope that all will be well. But, in the final moment: disaster. “Ohh….. Edward.”
One of McEwan’s trademarks is the unsaid word that changes lives. And we get that here. This failure has to be more than a hiccup on the road to marriage for there to be a point to the book. Without giving too much away, the repercussions are truly calamitous.
But are they believable? No. Yet, without Florence and Edward’s extraordinary reactions to a not uncommon setback, McEwan’s subject matter would justify a short story, not a short novel