Review

On Chesil Beach

by Ian McEwan

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