The Short Version: Florence and Edward have just been married. It’s 1962 and England. They arrive on the Dorset coast for their honeymoon with the weight of expectations pressing down on both of them – and the night does not go well, sending ripples through the rest of their lives.
The Review: I feel like McEwan wrote this book (which I’d argue is actually a novella gussied up as a novel – large margins to bump the page count over 200 don’t change the fact that the word count is quite low) as an exercise. Specifically an exercise in trying to write like Harold Pinter. Of course, as a novelist, you have to shade in quite a bit more than Pinter had to – but the idea of the thing is what I mean. Those weighty pauses. The way a simple ordinary sentence can carry so much sublimated meaning. The general sense of menace behind the doors of genteel British society.
But the reason that Pinter’s plays work so well is that those moments take place onstage. In life. In person. You do not read that there was a weighty pause – instead it just exists and you can feel the tension in the room rise. I have to admit, despite being a champion of the written word, that there’s something a novel can only very very very very very rarely capture about the actual way a room feels in those circumstances. It’s simply a circumstance too difficult to articulate because it must be felt.
McEwan’s book does a great job at capturing the essence of that Pinterian English middle-class menace… but it never quite lands in the same way. We flash back to Edward’s youth and Florence’s time at school and their courtship and it feels more like padding than anything else. The most fascinating moments are the ones in what I’ll take the liberty of calling ‘the present’: the scenes at the hotel in Dorset. The way McEwan slides back and forth between the couple’s internal thoughts, showing how easy it is to misread a person… and how love makes us do the stupidest things because we think that’s what the other person wants. As Florence leads Edward on towards the bed, despite feeling so awfully conflicted about sex in general, she is quite conscious of the fact that she doesn’t want to do it… but also conscious of the way that part of this doesn’t feel bad. Not by a long shot. And yet, because of the strictures of the time, she can’t say anything.
Meanwhile, Edward is “a typical male – which is to say a shithook and a dickhead” (quote by Charles Mee). He’s quick to anger, driven by his passions… and just as lost as Florence is. He’s never done this before either – not by choice, necessarily – and while he believes himself to be evolved, he isn’t as evolved as he’d like to think. The flashback to his dust-up in the street with the greaser is the perfect explanation of that. And while I enjoyed that flashback and what it meant for the character… I also, again, wondered if it was necessary. What if it was just mentioned obliquely, left haunting the background of the story. Would he be violent towards Florence? That flashback took away any sense that he might be, oddly enough. I wanted to feel the tension and terror between the two – and instead, all I felt was sadness. Sadness at how Florence reacts to something that, today, would quite likely be laughed off by both parties (although the gentleman would likely also be a bit embarrassed. Hey, it happens.) – and how that absolutely ruins their relationship. Irrevocably.
But mostly, even as I write this and try to think critically (hey college nostalgia!) about this book, I find myself thinking that I mostly didn’t care. Even as I was reading – at quite a clip, as I think it might be impossible NOT to zip through the book – I could find myself sitting there just sort of going through the motions. Something might jump out and excite me but mostly it was just rather bland. There’s quite a lot of good work written about the British class system at the end of the 50s/early 60s – forget Pinter, just look at Lane Pryce’s storylines on Mad Men… even look at most of McEwan’s other work! – and it has fascinating ramifications even today. At least I find it all fascinating. But this just never quite engaged me and instead I looked at it as though it had been assigned for school and I could dissect it in that way. The hazards of an English major, I suppose.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5. A conversation with a friend yesterday about the book has proved quite prescient: she said that she read the book and put it down and never thought of it again. I have the strange feeling that it’ll prove the same for me. It was, quite simply, rather forgettable. An exercise by a terrific writer – who, don’t get me wrong, has a wonderful way with turns of phrase and beautiful prose – who has the luxury of printing a novella at novel length and novel prices and the comfort that it’ll get nominated for the Booker, etc. I’m not saying this is good or bad, mind you. I’m just saying.