On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

On the surface, On Chesil Beach is the story of one wedding night.  Once you close the last page, however, you realize that this is truly the story of an entire lifetime and how one night can shift our lives into being.

I have been a fan of McEwan’s for a long time.  I loved Atonement, but I thought Enduring Love was just okay.  Saturday is the novel that really shocked me, because when I read it I thought it was good, but not great.  Five or six years after reading it, however, I still think about it and certain parts of the novel, especially the main character’s daughter.  Something about that book has stayed with me, unlike other books I have read.  Just talking about it now has reminded me that I need to go back and reread it.  Needless to say, I was excited about reading another McEwan, but I was curious about where this would fall.  Is this a novel I’m going to be thinking about in 5 years?  Is this a novel like Atonement, that I really loved and enjoyed reading, but probably wouldn’t read again?  Or would it be like Enduring Love, where I don’t regret reading it, don’t think it’s a bad book, but I hardly remember anything about it.

For now, I will say that it lies somewhere between Atonement and Saturday for me.  On Chesil Beach is such an intimate look at one couple, married during the early 60s.  I was continually impressed by McEwan’s insights and how perfectly developed these two characters were.  Florence and Edward are thrilled to begin their married life together, to be no longer seen as young and incomplete members of society.  Florence, however, has a paralyzing anxiety about physical contact with her husband, something she has kept from him, dreading the moment that would consummate their marriage.

I loved the combined narratives in this novel.  We are given glimpses into not only the wedding night, but also their courtship and their futures.  The narration shifts focus from Florence to Edward so we are given both sides to the story.  I really thought that this book was heartbreaking and honest, beautiful and quiet.  I think I just want to stop talking about this novel and share some quotes with you:

The term “teenager” had not long been invented, and it never occurred to him that the separateness he felt, which was both painful and delicious, could be shared by anyone else. (93)

A shift or a strenghtening of the wind brought them the sound of waves breaking, like a distant shattering of glass.  The mist was lifting to reveal in part the contours of the low hills, curving away above the shoreline to the east.  They could see a luminous gray smoothness that may have been the silky surface of the sea itself, or the lagoon, or the sky – it was difficult to tell.  The altered breeze carried through the parted French windows an enticement, a salty scent of oxygen and open space that seemed at odds with the starched table linen, the cornflour-stiffened gravy, and the heavy polished silver they were taking in their hands.  The wedding lunch had been huge and prolonged.  They were not hungry.  It was in theory open to them to abandon their plates, seize the wine bottle by the neck and run down to the shore and kick their shoes off and exult in their liberty.  There was no one in the hotel who would have wanted to stop them.  They were adults at last, on holiday, free to do as they chose.  In just a few years’ time, that would be the kind of thing quite ordinary young people would do.  But for now, the times held them.  Even when Edward and Florence were alone, a thousand unacknowledged rules still applied.  It was precisely because they were adults that they did not do childish things like walk away from a meal that others had taken pains to prepare.  It was dinnertime, after all.  And being childlike as not yet honorable, or in fashion.  (23)

If I had one complaint, it is that the last chapter of the novel that explores life after that wedding night is almost exclusively about Edward.  When the rest of the book had been so balanced, I was disappointed with the lack of information about Florence we received.   Overall, I’m impressed with McEwan’s attention to detail, especially the sensitivity he employed when portraying Florence.   I’m so glad I finally picked this one up.  It might be one of my favorite reads of 2010 and one that I see myself rereading again soon.

So go read this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR pile

Also reviewed by: Reading & Reviewing, Dolce Belleza, Caribousmom, Small World Reads, Bart’s Bookshelf, Everyday Reads, The Bluestocking Society, Bookie Mee, Care’s Online Book Club, A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook.


25 thoughts on “On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

  1. I’ve been scared to try another McEwan because I read Atonement last year and (sorry!) hated it. I’ve long thought that if I tried another, it would be this one, but I just don’t know…

    1. Amanda: I think you might like this one. The one great thing about McEwan is that all of his books are so very different, if you hate one you might love another.

  2. I have had mixed results with McEwan, in that I liked Atonement well enough, but I HATED Amsterdam and it made me think that he’s really not the author for me. But the fact that you felt so connected to this novel makes me wonder whether it might not be worth giving him one more try before making up my mind for good… at the very least, it is short, so even if I don’t have good luck with it, it wouldn’t be a huge time investment… Hmmm… decisions, decisions!

    1. Steph: I also recommend Saturday. It’s beautiful and still with me years later, even if I didn’t totally appreciate it when I read it.

  3. After only getting 50 pages into Atonement before giving up, I was hesitant to pick up On Chesil Beach — but something about the premise really appealed to me. And lo and behold, I loved it, too! Such a moving, complicated and deeply introspective novel… and in the years since I’ve finished it, I’ve thought about it often. McEwan’s insights into love and sex have haunted me.

    I picked up Solar earlier this year, I’ll note, still reading high from my success with On Chesil Beach… and I hated it. Boring, condescending, ridiculous drivel. You win some, you lose some!

  4. I liked Atonement, too, but I haven’t been sure where to go with McEwan since then. I’ve been thinking about reading Enduring Love, but after what you mentioned about it, perhaps I’ll try this one instead.

  5. Like some of the other commenters, I’m similarly on-again, off-again with McEwan – interestingly, Atonement is one of those books that has really stuck with me over time, but the other stuff of his I’ve read hasn’t done much for me. I very much like the tone and import of that second quote you pulled – maybe On Chesil Beach will be my next McEwan.

  6. Fabulous review. I am embarrassed you linked to mine since I don’t discuss it AT ALL other than I liked it. A LOT. I have a crazy crush on McEwan even tho I’ve only read Atonement (twice and not because I meant to but because I didn’t realize it and the second time it made a huge impression) and I really need to get back to more. I want to read Saturday next.

  7. I’ve decided I am definitely going to read Ian McEwan very soon. Per your recommendation and few others I think I’ll start with Atonement, especially since I already own it.

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