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Hand on the Shoulder

May 5, 2012

Sex and spies

In his short novel Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan detailed the embarrassments of a bad wedding night. In last week’s New Yorker story, Hand on the Shoulder, he tackles the discomfort of a partner’s knobbly pubic bone, the difficulty for a straight woman satisfying a gay man, and the older man’s other problem – forgetfulness.

Once the towel solution is found, the luscious Serena enjoys the repressed and bony Jeremy lasting so long, because she always gets off. But lasting forever is no way to make a girl feel good about herself.  So when Jeremy’s tutor Tony puts his hand on her shoulder, not just in the classic seduction move, but to recruit her as a spy, she falls for it.

Soon Jeremy has gone off with his boyfriend and Tony starts her education. Not just in fine wine, fancy food and alfresco sex, but in the great game itself – maintaining the balance between competing great powers. She’s a fast learner, and her sister’s antics with drugs and boys distract her parents from what is going on. But adulterers usually get caught in the end – at least those we hear about do. In this case a memory lapse about the washing of a shirt brings the lovers down.

McEwan presents it straight. Tony does tell her to put the shirt in the laundry basket and appears to really forget doing so. His wife’s discovery and his angry reaction seem real. They certainly fool Serena who realises the game is up.  But the timing, just two days before her MI5 interview must be a clue. Has this all been planned? Since this is an excerpt from McEwans’s forthcoming novel Sweet Tooth, I guess we will soon find out.

And the illustration above? Smart young girl in left-hand-drive red sports car, overnight bag on her knee and lover’s arm over her shoulder. Come on New Yorker picture editor! We drive on the other side of the road in Cambridge, England.

Jim Thornton

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