This deceptively light novella describes the events of Florence and Edward’s disastrous honeymoon night in 1962, interspersed with details of their childhoods and courtship to suggest how those influenced what happened. It is clinical and understated from the start: “The wedding... had gone well” and the “weather... not perfect but entirely adequate” and continues in the bedroom with detailed descriptions of physical sensations of skin, muscle, and even individual hairs, “stroking... for more than one and a half minutes” (too precise).
Florence is “incapable of rudeness”, Edward “polite to a fault” and both are virgins and unable to discuss intimate things (“There were no words to name what had happened, there existed no shared language.”), leading to misunderstandings, lost opportunities and unexpected consequences. Edward is guided by duty. Florence is guided by guilt (though not being religious, she can’t get absolution) and has a “visceral dread” of sex, realising that “sex with Edward could not be the summation of her joy, but was the price she must pay for it”.
A major theme is destiny, which is perhaps the converse of missed opportunities. “They regarded themselves as too sophisticated to believe in destiny”, yet it was a belief in destiny that prompted Florence to form her quartet and they inferred the hand of destiny in the extreme improbability of their meeting, plus Edward wants to study and write about how powerful individuals can change destiny.
They are very different: Florence is a classical musician from a privileged academic city background, lacking in confidence except where music is concerned. Edward is quiet but (in the past) occasionally explosive, an historian from a rural “squalid family home” with a brain damaged mother. Both are used to leaving things unsaid: Florence is “adept at concealing her feelings from her family” and “lived in isolation within herself”, while Edward grew up in a family that colluded in his mother’s fantasy of a well-run household by not talking about it and secretly chose a London university instead of Oxford as part of “his sense of a concealed life”. Their musical tastes are fundamentally incompatible (though they try), yet for Florence music is her “path to pleasure”, rather than physical intimacy.
Although Edward’s family home was chaotic and somewhat repressed, it was loving. He enjoys the “exotic opulence” of Florence’s home and although not a social climber, “his desire for Florence was inseparable from the setting”. Florence was raised by nannies, and her mother is uninterested in her, tone deaf and “had barely ever touched her daughter”. Her relationship with her father is more subtle, but perhaps more troubling. Sometimes she found him “physically repellent” and sometimes she’d hug and kiss him, and loather herself for it; she even jokes about marrying him. Although “he never touched her... in Edward’s sight”, they were “intensely aware of each other” (he did hug her sister), and took overnight trips alone together, even sharing a room on the boat. At times she feels more like the parent or child of Edward rather than his girlfriend or wife.
There is plenty of see-sawing in the book: the ebb and flow of desire; who to blame for what goes wrong (both in the minds of the characters and the readers); Florence’s feelings about her father and whether or not she thinks there is something wrong with Edward or herself.
The story, and especially the ending, would be implausible nowadays, but fits the characters and the period. The fact that Edward “fell away from history to live snugly in the present” seems entirely appropriate.
It is a raw and painful book in places, all the more ironic given that it is set in the allegedly “swinging 60” (with additional irony from the fact that Florence takes Edward’s cherry – but only at dinner).
It is interesting to compare this with Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/38680524) and Lynne Reid Banks' The L Shaped Room (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/132028303), both of which were written in the 60s, about the 60s, and feature a woman struggling with sexual intimacy, against the zeitgeist of the swinging 60s. Also, Julian Barnes' 1986 novel, Staring at the Sun (review here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/326236744), has similarly poignant anxiety about sex, though it takes a more humorous angle.