In the summer of 1962, Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting are married in the English university city of Oxford. The wedding “had gone well; the service was decorous, the reception jolly, the send-off from school and college friends raucous and uplifting.” Now they are alone, dining “in a tiny sitting room on the first floor of a Georgian inn” at Chesil Beach, on the English Channel. They are happy, yet almost indescribably nervous: “They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.”
This breathtaking novel, Ian McEwan’s 11th, tells the story of that night. Like a number of his previous books — among them The Cement Garden, The Comfort of Strangers, Black Dogs and Amsterdam — On Chesil Beach is more a novella than a novel, weighing in at around 40,000 words, but like those other books it is in no important sense a miniature. Instead, it takes on subjects of universal interest — innocence and naiveté, self-delusion, desire and repression, opportunity lost or rejected — and creates a small but complete universe around them. McEwan’s prose is as masterly as ever, here striking a remarkably subtle balance between detachment and sympathy, dry wit and deep compassion. It reaffirms my conviction that no one now writing in English surpasses or even matches McEwan’s accomplishment.