Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light …
— From Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”
On Chesil Beach. By Ian McEwan. Doubleday/Nan Talese, 203 pp., $22.
By Janice Harayda
Much of Ian McEwan’s new novel seems designed to remind you of “Dover Beach.” The title, the plot, the melancholy tone of On Chesil Beach — all raise echoes of Matthew Arnold’s lament for the erosion of spiritual values.
But you might also think of Mitch Albom after reading McEwan’s tale of a young, educated couple and their disastrous wedding night at a hotel on the English Channel in 1962. On Chesil Beach is a short, flyweight novel that wears its message on its sleeve. And it’s the kind of message you might expect from Albom: “This is how the entire course of a life can be changed – by doing nothing.”
Actually, the newlyweds in On Chesil Beach do quite a few things on their wedding night, each more humiliating than the next. But what Florence and Edward don’t do – and this is what changes their life – is express their true feelings, because the let-it-all-hang-out era is a few years away. If the couple had more substance, this overfamiliar idea might not be a problem. But Florence and Edward come across less as characters you care about than as emblems of English “types” fleshed out by dutiful research into their era.
Some of the period details in the novel are mildly interesting. Can hoteliers of the pre-Nigella era really have had so little Freudian sense that a typical honeymoon-suite meal began with “a slice of melon decorated by a single glazed cherry”? Other details are ’60s clichés. And none can turn this book into more than better grade of pop fiction, a For One More Day with a higher IQ. I read part of it on a trip disrupted by the tornado that struck Brooklyn, and, it was perfect, because unlike that journey, nothing about it was taxing in the least.
Best line: “And [he] would never have described himself as unhappy – among his London friends was a woman he was fond of; well into his 50s he played cricket for Turville Park, he was active in a historical society in Henley, and played a part in the restoration of the ancient watercress beds in Ewelme.” That phrase about the watercress beds is one the few that gives you a sense of why McEwan has such a high reputation.
Worst line (tie): McEwan aggressively courts a Bad Sex in Fiction Award from the Literary Review www.literaryreview.co.uk with: “Like most young men of his time, or any time, without an easy manner, or means to sexual expression, he indulged constantly in what one enlightened authority was now calling ‘self-pleasuring’ … How extraordinary it was, that a self-made spoonful, leaping clear of his body, should instantly free his mind to confront afresh Nelson’s decisiveness at Aboukir Bay.” A non-onanistic example: “Because the instrument was a cello rather than her violin, the interrogator was not herself but a detached observer, mildly incredulous, but insistent too, for after a brief silence and lingering, unconvincing reply from the other instruments, the cello put the question again, in different terms, on a different chord, and then again, and again, and each time received a doubtful answer.”
Reading group guide: www.randomhouse.com
Consider reading instead: Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac (Vintage, $12.95). This Booker Prize-winner involves a bride-to-be who backs out of her wedding at the last minute, an event that is as humiliating as the trauma that occurs in On Chesil Beach but handled with more credibility.
Published: June 2007
Furthermore: McEwan’s novels include Atonement, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Amsterdam, winner of the Booker Prize. He lives in London.
Update: After this post appeared, On Chesil Beach was named a finalist for this year’s Man Booker Prize www.themanbookerprize.com, to be announced Oct. 16.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.