On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
Published March 23, 2007
Quietly moving in its simplicity, On Chesil Beach is a short but poignant novel about how one moment can irrevocably shape the lives of two people.
On Chesil Beach tells an outwardly simple story of a pair of young lovers on their honeymoon in 1962. The romantic weekend should be a joyous occasion but, constrained by propriety, Florence and Edward are plagued by a series of miscommunications that quickly derail their honeymoon. Florence is what we would now call a sex-repulsed asexual woman, but of course in a time before sexual liberation, she has no label, no reference for what she feels. Believing her distaste for sexual intimacy with her partner to be a personal failing, she suffers in silence until, in a fatal moment, she can’t hide her disgust any longer.
Edward is no less sympathetic. It’s apparent as the honeymoon unfolds, and in flashbacks to his courtship of Florence, that he loves her, but lacking context for Florence’s reactions (her muscles are tense because she’s disgusted and ashamed and steeling herself to be touched in a way that she doesn’t desire), he draws the wrong conclusion, mistaking her tension for excitement.
It’s impossible to read this book without getting swept up in the tragedy; Certainly my overwhelming emotion throughout was a deeply felt sympathy towards the characters, both of whom are a product of their time. In the years before the sexual revolution challenged traditional codes of behaviour, Florence and Edward are burdened by their inexperience. Unable to talk openly with one another about their feelings, desires, and expectations, they both suffer as a result.
McEwan’s prose is gorgeous as it communicates the innermost thoughts of Florence and Edward, as well as the circumstances that have shaped each character. Yet I can’t say that On Chesil Beach blew me away and I suspect the story won’t have a long lasting impact on me. Maybe it’s simply a matter of genre preference, since I tend to prefer historical epics and fantasy novels to literary fiction. Regardless, On Chesil Beach may not be my favourite book this year but it’s well worth picking up and immersing yourself in this melancholic read for a few hours.