On the heels of his day-in-the-life novel Saturday, Ian McEwan returns to the notion that a person's whole existence can be summed up in a moment. His latest, On Chesil Beach, is a strange kind of suspense novella in which the tension derives from whether a pair of newlyweds will have sex. McEwan lays out the situation on the first few pages: It's 1962, and Edward and Florence have differing expectations for their first time. Edward's worried about premature ejaculation, while Florence is afraid her squeamishness about penetration will cause her to flee the room in panic. As McEwan explains in his opening lines, "They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy."
McEwan flashes back from the honeymoon suite to all the major and minor incidents that brought these two people to this point, and at the end he even flashes forward, to show the lingering impact of one awkward night in bed. On Chesil Beach has multiple facets, but it's primarily a study of how two well-meaning, otherwise compatible people are burdened with the values of their time, which prevent them from asking for what they really want. (And what they could probably have.) McEwan smartly sets the story just before the advent of "Swinging London," implying that if Edward and Florence had met a couple of years later, the youth revolution would've reset their priorities, and maybe dissolved their hang-ups. McEwan also subtly suggests that they represent the British Empire in its last days, undone by a combination of frustrated ambition and cowardly reserve.
But it's best not to read too much into that analogy, just as it's best not to dwell too much at the hints McEwan drops about his two leads' tortured childhoods—hints which keep threatening to break On Chesil Beach's precise pitch with blunt revelation. Thank goodness McEwan backs off, because this doesn't need to be a story about uncommonly broken people. The book is nerve-wracking because it follows two anybodies, sweating out the ridiculous-but-universal complications of a wholly natural act.