Thursday, August 02, 2007

Ian McEwan Writes The Books I Wish I Wrote

I just finished On Chesil Beach and it is really beautiful. I wrote a review on Facebook and I'm too lazy to copy it here. But there is something I left out of the review because it was without context. A couple months ago when I read The Historian I complained that no one can write a decent sex scene. They're usually awkward, embarrassing and definitely not sexy. Mostly I feel like they miss the whole point of sex, focusing on the erotic as though it is mutually exclusive from love or kindness or friendship. Now that I put that in words, it seems really clich├ęd, which isn't how I meant it at all. It is just to say that most sex scenes in books seem to be detached from the overall narrative, these intense moments of passion, gratification and sometimes joy, when in reality sex is (in my opinion) rarely all that separate from one's general narrative. But maybe I'm missing the point. I'll grant that could be the case. Ian McEwan, though, never misses the point. On Chesil Beach contains the most beautifully written sex scene I have ever read. And it's awkward virgin sex! The whole scene is built up to as part of the character construction as the plot centers around the wedding night of the two protagonists, Edward and Florence. The sex (which is rather graphically detailed - on a scale from "Pride & Prejudice" to "The Mammoth Hunters," it rates above a "Lady Chatterley's Lover" but maybe just below a "Mists of Avalon" because he doesn't euphemise) is never removed from the context of the characters' relationship. Florence is disgusted by the whole idea of physical intimacy, but is horrified at the idea that she might disappoint this man she loves so dearly. Edward has mistaken her fear and revulsion for coyness and is looking forward to finally consummating the relationship, which has him worried about poor performance. McEwan weaves all of their respective anxieties into the narrative of the experience. And although it is a cringingly awkward and shameful experience for the protagonists (as the loss of virginity is for any member of any rather closed society, as postwar England is painted in this novel), it was somehow still beautiful to read.

I finished this book yesterday and I feel lighter and somehow happier today for having read it. It's short - less than 200 pages, I think - and didn't take long to read. But it made me re-evaluate why we fall in love and when and how it happens. At some point in the book Edward realizes that though he is already in love with Florence, he feels a wave of additional fondness wash over him and realizes that the joy of truly loving someone isn't something that sits with you always at the same level, but is rather something that comes in waves. The message I took away from it is that one can fall in love with the same person again and again without ever falling out of love with them. And I think that's true (I know it's true for me). So read this book! Or anything by Ian McEwan, really. But if you're looking for something short and brilliant and beautiful, pick this one.

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