Two novels by acclaimed writers give beach reading new meaning

Annie Dillard traces a marriage over the course of years while Ian McEwan examines a disastrous wedding night.

This summer, two award-winning writers have taken the classification of "beach reading" rather literally. Man Booker Prize-winner Ian McEwan ("Amsterdam") and Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Dillard ("Pilgrim at Tinker Creek") have both just published short novels about seaside-set couples starting out in the middle of the 20th century. Both authors are writing about the importance of patience and forgiveness as well as love, and both write masterfully. But where Dillard's The Maytrees takes an expansive view of her characters' lives, McEwan chooses to dissect one disastrous day.

Lou Bigelow, bookworm and Ingrid Bergman look-alike, and Toby Maytree, a poet who picks up cash by remodeling and moving houses, have met and married on the shores of Cape Cod, where Toby has a shack his father built. "Twice a day behind their house the tide boarded the sand. Four times a year the seasons flopped over. Clams lived like this, but without so much reading."

In "The Maytrees," Dillard creates a beautiful sense of stillness as she details the unencumbered lives of Toby and Lou, which Dillard paints as idyllic when compared with most of our possession-clogged existences. "No phone, no light, no motorcar! Not a single luxury," as the TV theme song goes. But there is time for each other, their son, like-minded friends, and above all, words. When their son, Petie, is 14, Toby leaves Lou and Cape Cod for a mutual friend and life in Maine. Left behind, Lou spends years rooting out self-centered thoughts and teaching herself how to paint the sea. Dillard's interests in nature and poetry get equal time in "The Maytrees," and she writes in a spare style that evokes the peace of a Shaker chair.

There are a few problems with "The Maytrees," most of which hinge on plot movements. For example, the friend, Deary, abruptly shifts from a free spirit who sleeps on the beach wrapped in sailcloth to a woman who wears tweeds and pearls and requires a well-padded bank account. And there's an inexplicable silence of 20 years between Toby and Pete that's bridged over too easily. But the plot quibbles seem insignificant in the face of so much grace.

On Chesil Beach is the second novel where McEwan takes a "day in the life" approach, after 2004's "Saturday," which tried to answer the question of what the West could offer spiritually and philosophically as a counter to religious terrorism. Hopefully, he won't go for three in a row. It's not that "On Chesil Beach" isn't elegantly and precisely rendered; it's just that the purposely hermetic approach isn't quite as exciting or, frankly, fun to read as more sweeping novels such as "Atonement."

The novel takes its title from a famous beach in England, where "thousands of years of pounding storms had sifted and graded the size of pebbles along the 18 miles of beach.... The legend was that fishermen landing at night knew exactly where they were by the grade of shingle."

It's 1962 – just a few years away from the sexual liberation movement – and Florence and Edward, a violinist and a history graduate, are enduring one of the most squirm-inducing honeymoons in the literary canon. Even the food is bad: an overcooked roast beef dinner with a slice of melon with a maraschino cherry on top to provide a hint of elegance. ("This was not a good moment in the history of English cuisine, but no one much minded at the time, except visitors from abroad," the narrator remarks in one of many omniscient footnotes.) But the food isn't the only way in which Edward and Florence are imprisoned by their era. "They lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible," the narrator gently notes. Florence is having difficulties that go well beyond "the jitters." She has reasons for her revulsion, and although these are never stated (in keeping with the theme), a reader can make heartbreaking inferences from McEwan's glancing mentions about her family life. Edward, the son of a schoolteacher father and a brain-damaged mother, is experiencing insecurities of his own due to differences in wealth and class between his family and Florence's businessman father and philosopher mother. Edward had never even tasted yogurt before visiting Florence's family, and the honeymoon is the first time he's stayed in a hotel.

McEwan details their night in intentionally painful detail, but he isn't playing his hapless lovers for comedy. He regards them compassionately and successfully makes the case that what happens to the idealistic couple is both inevitable and qualifies as a tragedy. Most of the novel takes place on that beach, with the rest of their lives summed up in about 10 pages. That epilogue is the only stylistic flaw in "On Chesil Beach" – it feels unbalanced. After all, who wants to be defined exclusively by one night of bad sex?

• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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