by Ian McEwan
2008, Vintage Books
Summary (from Publishers Weekly):
Not quite novel or novella, McEwan's masterful 13th work of fiction most resembles a five-part classical drama rendered in prose. It opens on the anxious Dorset Coast wedding suite dinner of Edward Mayhew and the former Florence Ponting, married in the summer of 1963 at 23 and 22 respectively; the looming dramatic crisis is the marriage's impending consummation, or lack of it. Edward is a rough-hewn but sweet student of history, son of an Oxfordshire primary school headmaster and a mother who was brain damaged in an accident when Edward was five. Florence, daughter of a businessman and (a rarity then) a female Oxford philosophy professor, is intense but warm and has founded a string quartet. Their fears about sex and their inability to discuss them form the story's center. At the book's midpoint, McEwan (Atonement, etc.) goes into forensic detail about their naïve and disastrous efforts on the marriage bed, and the final chapter presents the couple's explosive postcoital confrontation on Chesil Beach. Staying very close to this marital trauma and the circumstances surrounding it (particularly class), McEwan's flawless omniscient narration has a curious (and not unpleasantly condescending) fable-like quality, as if an older self were simultaneously disavowing and affirming a younger. The story itself isn't arresting, but the narrator's journey through it is.
On Chesil Beach is a hauntingly sad novel... quite unlike anything I've read. Edward and Florence obviously love each other, but the reader realizes early on that their wedding night will end badly. An omniscient narrator relays the story and its aftermath, and provides just the right amount of background information to aid our understanding of the characters.
McEwan's writing, however, is the main attraction - beautiful, compassionate, and simply a pleasure to read. This devastating novel is sure to leave a lasting impression.
"For the first time, her love for Edward was associated with a definable physical sensation, as irrefutable as vertigo. Before, she had known only a comforting broth of warm emotions, a thick winter blanket of kindness and trust. That had always seemed enough, an achievement in itself. Now here at last were the beginnings of desire, precise and alien, but clearly her own; and beyond, as though suspended above and behind her, just out of sight, was relief that she was just like everyone else." p. 87-88
"Whatever new frontier she crossed, there was always another waiting for her. Every concession she made increased the demand, and then disappointment. Even in their happiest moments, there was always the accusing shadow, the barely hidden gloom of his unfulfilment, looming like an alp, a form of perpetual sorrow which had been accepted by them both as her responsibility. She wanted to be in love and be herself. But to be herself, she had to say no all the time." p. 146
On Chesil Beach will be one of my favorite novels this year.