Tuesday, November 15, 2011

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

On Chesil Beach
by Ian McEwan
166 pages
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.

My thoughts:
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.

Favorite passages:
"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

My rating:

Bottom line:
On Chesil Beach will be one of my favorite novels this year.


  1. JoAnn, I find McEwan's novels to be extraordinary things. I simply can't read him anymore. It isn't because he's a bad writer--he's not, he's actually a very, very good writer. I think it is because he always writes about the most discomfiting things imaginable. Atonement just gutted me. Without giving anything away, let me just say that I wanted to commit homicide and kill a fictional character; which goes to show that I had become as warped as the author. I have long maintained that McEwan has a serious 'screw loose' deep within the recesses of his psyche. It has produced some amazingly intense novels, but it frankly scares the hell out of me. I don't know if what I've said made any sense whatsoever, but then I'm talking about McEwan ;-) I did, however, love your review of the novel. Cheers! Chris

  2. I wonder why sex was such a big issue for them? 1963 wasn't the Victorian era.

  3. Chris - I know EXACTLY what you mean! This novel has me wanting to revisit Atonement (read it years ago), and make time for Amsterdam and Saturday, both waiting on my shelf. McEwan may, indeed, have a screw loose... his novels are incredibly intense and, in many ways, scary. But he is an amazingly talented writer. Not sure where I'll turn next, but I will definitely keep reading him... no matter how much his novels drain me.

    E.L. Fay - The novel does, in a sense, seem Victorian. It is set exactly on the cusp of the sexual revolution... don't think it had reached the English countryside yet though.

  4. I've heard mixed things about this one, but your review is almost glowing. Makes me rethink not picking this one up. Perhaps it will find it's way on to a challenge list for next year.

  5. I love the quote you gave us and especially, the language. ". . . only a comforting broth of warm emotions, a thick winter blanket of kindness and trust." - so beautiful. How does he do it?

  6. INTENSE. I was squirming and riveted to this book. I clearly remember reading most of it while walking (running?) on the treadmill and thinking O.M.G. while my heart was breaking. I was amazed with what the author could do.

    And yet, it's been over a year since I have declared my devotion to McEwan. Must pace them out. I am thinking I will tackle Saturday sometime in 2012.

  7. Oh JoAnn, I love books that force you to read slowly and this sounds like one of them. And five stars!

  8. This is a book I enjoyed and I agree with you on all points made, especially regarding McEwan's writing. This is his first and only book I've read and therefore difficult to compare with others.

  9. Five stars?! I've only read Atonement by McEwan but have a few others on the shelf. Not this one, sadly, since your review certainly has me curious. From Atonement, though, I can agree that his writing certainly is beautiful and haunting. I tried to read Saturday while on maternity and just didn't have the brainpower to get past the first couple of pages. Also have Amsterdam on the shelf.

  10. Linda - I hope you get a chance to read On Chesil Beach. It's a wonderful little book.

    Margot - That phrase is my favorite... must have read it a dozen times when I first stumbled upon it. It's a gift to be able to write like that!

    Care - The more I think about this, the more I love it! Such amazing writing... I have both Saturday and Amsterdam on my shelf. Not sure which I'll read next.

    Darlene - This is definitely one of them! Every sentence deserves to be savored, yet the overall effect is devastating.

    Nana - Atonement is my only prior experience with McEwan. It's been years, but I don't remember the writing being quite as beautiful as in On Chesil Beach.

    Trish - Saturday and Amsterdam are on my shelf, too. I would also like to reread Atonement. I know what you mean about the brainpower though. I was pretty stressed a couple of weeks ago when I put On Chesil Beach aside and read Her Fearful Symmetry instead. Was glad to come back to it with a clearer mind.

  11. You are killing me!!!! I have often thought of reading this author and now I MUST!! excellent review!

  12. Staci - You should give McEwan a try. His writing is gorgeous!

  13. This is the second McEwan review I read to day. I don't know why I just find him boring. I've read two of his novels and I hated the characters and thought the stories were only meh. I am in a camp of one, I realize.

  14. McEwan's writing is amazing, it often takes my breath away. I haven't read that many of his books but I always seem to find one or two whenever I'm in a book store and look through them or sit and read them if I have the time.

    This book sounds extremely sad and harrowing. I feel for Florence and Edward although I also find it odd that they married when they're not able to communicate well. I'm also surprised that, when things don't work out well in bed, they still can't talk about it. I'm going to have to read this book!

    McEwan has an interesting and a disturbing mind! I wonder what he sees or thinks when he observes a couple together!

    I enjoyed your review very much, JoAnn, thank you :o)

  15. Amy - McEwan's writing does take your breath away! Besides this, I've only read Atonement, but will slowly work my way through more of his novels. He certainly is a keen observer of human relationships. I kept having to remind myself that this was 1962 and things were much different than they are now, but still felt so bad for both Edward and Florence.

  16. Rose City Reader - Atonement is the only other McEwan book I've read. Can you recommend any others?

  17. Sounds like a beautiful, contemplative read.

  18. "McEwan's writing, however, is the main attraction - beautiful, compassionate, and simply a pleasure to read."


  19. Kathleen - Beautiful and contemplative... On Chesil Beach is definitely both of those!

    Les - Since you're already a McEwan fan, this is sure to be hit!


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