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A distant shore

A young couple struggle to know each other as they embark on marriage and adulthood


On Chesil Beach
By Ian McEwan
Doubleday, 203 pp., $22

Pop culture tends to lionize writers for the powerhouse right they deliver -- take, for instance, Oprah's celebration of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road " or Hollywood's indelible visualization of Michael Ondaatje's "The English Patient." In America, the British writer Ian McEwan has suffered from a milder version of this myopia. Although "Atonement" was his ninth novel, published here in 2002, his story of an England between two world wars was of such magisterial beauty that it overshadowed the McEwan who had gone before. Then followed "Saturday," a novel that, in the aftermath of 9/11, seemed a relatively sunny survival guide for the modern world (the poultices were love and family). Long-time acolytes knew better: McEwan was a writer who, long before the panorama of "Atonement" and the careful, Woolfian detail of "Saturday," had used the darkest of palettes to paint the smallest of rooms. Not for nothing was McEwan known, early in his career, as Ian the Macabre.

So now that he's a household name on this side of the Atlantic, we have "On Chesil Beach," a spare, brief portrait of a marriage -- which is a bit like saying "The Remains of the Day" is about thwarted romance. A portion of the novel was excerpted last winter in The New Yorker, but that story offered a skewed glimpse of the greater whole -- the book is really about England, or a slice of circumspect British culture, as well as the devastating consequences of turning away at precisely the wrong moment. Like Ishiguro's tragic butler, the protagonists of "On Chesil Beach" -- two virgins, alone at last, in an inn on the Dorset coast on their wedding night -- are trapped by the very traits they've spent a lifetime cultivating. The consequent story is wrenching, funny, smart, and hugely gratifying in unexpected ways. Unexpected because, sly devil that he is, McEwan presumes to be telling a little tale about sex and the agonies of intimacies. But "On Chesil Beach" packs a pretty good wallop of its own.

As with the craftily meandering narrative of "Saturday," this story wanders placidly through the background lives of Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting, who met in 1961 after both attended Oxford, then college in London. The countrified son of a mild headmaster and an eccentric, perhaps barmy, mother, Edward found relief from his squalid, claustrophobic home by studying history. Florence's life of privilege couldn't be more different, though with its own set of obstacles: Her father is a wealthy businessman with "tiny white hands" whose chief passion seems to be acquiring more of everything; her mother, a philosopher and Oxford don who missed most of Florence's childhood thanks to Spinoza and Schopenhauer. Music was the girl's way out: When Edward met her, she was already an accomplished violinist with her own quartet. Her five hours of practice a day has been a gift rather than a chore; music is the one universe that Florence inhabits with confidence and grace.

Edward falls in love with her passion, of course -- what is more alluring than watching a lover consumed by his or her own fire? Like most young romantics, he assumes that all that flame will soon belong to him. When "On Chesil Beach" opens, the newlyweds are being served dinner in their rooms -- he waiting for the perfect moment to seize his bride, she, equally timid, trying to mask her dread and horror. She is fully in love with Edward, and yet the idea of sex with him is "as repulsive as, say, a surgical procedure on her eye." Gosh, thanks for that image!

Virginal jitters notwithstanding, we know from the outset that theirs will be a marriage with plenty of hurdles to clear: Because the author cross cuts between Edward's and Florence's alternating points of view, their disparate (and largely unexpressed) inner narratives weave toward and away from each other like drunks in a bar fight. They've chosen to love each other for all the touching and wrong reasons that define the game: The velvet ribbon in her hair, the way he makes her laugh, the assumed significance of an event that holds wildly different meanings for each. Florence is seeking to escape her own oddness, a self-estrangement in which she finds herself "never wanting or daring to look back." Less tormented but equally confused, Edward is fleeing the wearying ambiguity of youth -- that unmoored state that so often vacillates between freedom and anxiety. Together, with their disastrous miscommunication in the sack, their conjugal efforts begin to seem like a stand-in for a peculiarly English despair -- for the hopeless impotence and "drift into irrelevance" of post-imperialist decline.

It is also, sweetly and poisonously, 1963, so the idea of either party actually verbalizing his or her private terrors -- and God knows, they each possess them -- is out of the question; sex has been a promised bliss, but only that, and within the painstaking detail of their first night together, it's far more anguish than ecstasy. "And what stood in their way?" asks the narrator. "Their personalities and pasts, their ignorance and fear, timidity, squeamishness, lack of entitlement or experience or easy manners, then the tail end of a religious prohibition, their Englishness and class, and history itself. Nothing much at all."

"On Chesil Beach" is as merciful to its characters as it is merciless in its heartbreak. Their bruised pasts and querulous hopes unfold beautifully through the novel, almost destined to collide and then fade into the sorrow of real life. Marvelously realized and treacherously conceived, the story might as well be called "Out of Innocence" -- but even that would be a lie, since the innocence to which they cling has long been more camouflage than shelter.

Gail Caldwell is chief book critic of the Globe. She can be reached at