On Chesil Beach


The one-sentence description of Ian McEwans novel, On Chesil Beach, didnt excite me in 2007 when the book was published. It went something like this: The wedding night of a young British couple goes terribly wrong at a seaside resort.

Wow, I thought. Thats personal stuff. Do I want to infringe on the privacy of these newlyweds, fictional or not? So, I put the title on my mental reading list, if only because of my respect for McEwans Atonement and Saturday, but only in the Maybe One Day column.

Yet now that Ive just finished it, I realize I should have trusted McEwan. In his capable hands the story of a failed honeymoon night transcends the clumsiness of the 23-year-old groom, Edward, and the anxiety of his younger bride, Florence, and becomes the story of the life experiences that have shaped each one into the person who is there in a formal hotel bedroom on that night in 1962.

Readers understand things from Edwards point of view by way of his ruminations. After a dinner of melon, beef and sherry trifle is served to them in the sitting room of their suite, he wonders, Why did he not rise from his roast, cover her in kisses and lead her toward the four-poster bed next door? It was not so simple. He had a fairly long history of engaging with Florences shyness.

He had come to respect it, even revere it, mistaking it for a form of coyness, a conventional veil for a richly sexual nature.

At the same time we learn the young bride is experiencing overwhelming feelings. Florence suspected that there was something profoundly wrong with her, that she had always been different, and that at last she was about to be exposed. Her problem, she thought, was greater, deeper, than straightforward physical disgust, her whole being was in revolt against a prospect of entanglement and flesh, her composure and essential happiness were about to be violated.

A reader must never forget to place this night in the early 1960s. Self- awareness and effective communication among partners were not things these young people thought to develop. Nothing was ever discussed, McEwan says, nor did they feel the lack of intimate talk. These were matters beyond words, beyond definition. … While one heard of wealthier people going in for psychoanalysis, it was not yet customary to regard oneself in everyday terms as an enigma, as an exercise in narrative history or as a problem waiting to be solved.

The end of their story is unpredictable and haunting. Through flashbacks McEwan shows how a deep love developed between the bright but unpolished country boy and the privileged young classic violinist who want to share a life together. But love does not always conquer all as were reminded in this poignant tale.

McEwans writing is stunning. Every sentence just glows. He is as wise and sensitive as any man or women Ive ever read. This short novel, which I almost passed over, now ranks among my all-time favorites.