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On Chesil Beach


On Chesil Beach

On the surface of things, Ian McEwan's ON CHESIL BEACH is a simple story. Edward and Florence, a young couple in their early 20s, have just gotten married on a summer day in 1962. On their wedding night, they eat dinner in their honeymoon suite, try and fail to consummate their marriage, and erupt into a hurtful war of words on the stony beach outside their Dorset honeymoon inn.

But that's just the surface. Leave it to Booker Prize-winning author McEwan, however, to delve far below that seemingly shallow storyline in just over 200 pages. For one thing, there is the book's setting in the 1960s, but during those early years that bore far more resemblance to the straitlaced, sexually repressive 1950s than to the swinging, sexually open years that followed. The novel's opening sentence sums up the whole problem perfectly: "They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible." Plainly impossible, yes, and also devastatingly so.

Through the use of flashback (and flash-forward) and an impeccably crafted omniscient narrator, McEwan gives readers a surprising level of insight into his main characters, who serve not only as representations of their time but also as well-developed individuals. Edward is a virgin, yes, but he's been looking forward to his marriage as much for the chance to lose that label as for the opportunity to spend his life with the woman he loves. His proposal to Florence happened, after all, during the physical contact that was the closest the couple ever had come to sex. Impulsive, with a chip on his shoulder and a tendency to fight, Edward has overcome his pride in order to accept a position with Florence's father's company.

Florence, on the other hand, approaches the physical aspect of her wedding night with a "visceral dread." Repulsed by the descriptions of sex ("penetration," "mucuous") in her marriage manual, Florence recoils from Edward's touch, wishing that their relationship could be more like the nurturing and affectionate but non-physical relationships she enjoyed in college. A successful musician who finds her assertive self only in the context of the string quartet she leads, Florence is paralyzed not only by her fear of sex but also by the utter lack of language with which she can discuss these matters: "As she understood it, there were no words to name what had happened, there existed no shared language in which two sane adults could describe such events to each other." Her reticence, and many of her other characteristics, seem almost Victorian to modern readers, who may be startled to discover just how far relationships between men and women have progressed in just 45 years.

And that, in the end, is one of the brilliant aspects of McEwan's novel. ON CHESIL BEACH could have developed into a farce. Embarrassment, humiliation and shame are all the stuff of slapstick comedy, and although the author explores these emotions adeptly, he never mocks these characters. Instead, he develops what could have been a simple period comedy of manners into a tragedy of sorts, an examination of how whole lives can be shaped, and changed, by single moments of impatience, recklessness and misunderstanding.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 24, 2011

On Chesil Beach
by Ian McEwan

  • Publication Date: June 5, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Nan A. Talese
  • ISBN-10: 0385522401
  • ISBN-13: 9780385522403