On Chesil Beach
By: Ian McEwan
Format/Source: Mass market paperback; my purchase
All she had needed was the certainty of his love, and his reassurance that there was no hurry when a lifetime lay ahead of them. It is July 1962. Edward and Florence, young innocents married that morning, arrive at a hotel on the Dorset coast. At dinner in their rooms they struggle to suppress their private fears of the wedding night to come…
I first read this book back in 2010 when I was doing my semester abroad but like the few books that I read during my time there, I never got around to reviewing them here. I remember liking it enough but not quite getting it; I expected more drama a la Atonement (review) and felt it ended quite abruptly. Having read a few of his books recently and with news that this book was being adapted into a movie, I figured it was time to revisit the title.
SPOILERS if you haven’t read the book because I will talk about it to some great length!
Well, re-reading it now I can safely say I appreciate the book a lot more. It’s a much quieter drama–if that’s even possible–than Atonement, even more introspective and much of the story relying on the characters’ upbringing and experiences in contrast to their reaction towards the uncharted territories of physical intimacy, the central issue in which both characters clash. In a way I sort of linked this book with Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road (review) in that when you contast these two characters and their inner lives, their trajectories, and how and where they clash, you kind of wonder–especially the further along the novel you go–just how these two characters ended up together in the first place. There’s so many layers to their friction: on the one level, there’s that weird inversion in which the story is set on the cusp of the sexual revolution–on the outside Edward seems liberal in his thoughts about sex, or at least he was looking forward to the experience, whereas Florence is very Edwardian (and perhaps asexual in a way, I haven’t made up my mind about her stance here) and yet when it comes down to their relationship and the physical aspect of it, Florence advocates for something akin to an open marriage and Edward’s response is much more conservative. On another level, just looking at the way they worked through their own issues alone, the breakdown of their relationship lies a lot in their failure to communicate their own fears and concerns and discomfort, which again is a product of their times and their upbringing and lends itself to the generational divide (again going back to the time period this novel is set in and the subtle hints of the differences in generations and how it shows in their own behaviours and attitudes).
The deeper you go into the novel, the more you peel back at the layers of both the characters and their course of their relationship and how they got to where they’re at at the start of the novel, the reader is left wondering how they were able to stay together for as long as they did and whether their relationship would’ve lasted longer had they been more open with each other, gave themselves time and patience to settle in, face their issues together. I only wished we got Florence’s POV at the end of the novel as well, I thought it was a little strange that Edward had the final POV considering that they were both equal in presentation of perspective throughout the novel; Florence in a way just descends into a mystery after her final confrontation with Edward.
Overall I really enjoyed revisiting On Chesil Beach. On the surface the story seems rather straightforward, charting Edward and Florence’s relationship and the mortifying incident that leads to its breakdown, but going deeper than that it’s a fascinating take on the times and the clash and change of attitudes as well as a hyper-awareness of self. It’s a great character study and I highly recommend this book to readers of literary fiction. If this is your first time reading Ian McEwan I might not necessarily recommend it first but it’s definitely worth checking out at some point.