Review: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

It’s a bit awkward to recommend On Chesil Beach to friends and family because it’s a book I’d never read aloud (or in front of) friends and family. After a swift recap of the wedding and dinner, the book launches into a detailed description of Florence and Edward’s awkward, bumbling wedding night. There’s an imperceptible shift into an engaging story; it’s like a magic trick.

The miscommunications between Florence and Edward are awkward. If this were a movie, the secondhand embarrassment would have kept me peeking through my fingers, but that doesn’t work with a book. McEwan’s chief skill is how he bounces the narrative between their perspectives to show the ways they misunderstand and misinterpret each others’ actions and words. Things end badly, but not from any intentional duplicity or maliciousness on either part. If the narrative were from a single perspective, it would be easy to assume the worst of the other party, but by showing both sides, something much more interesting and tragic emerges.

I sometimes poke through other reviews before writing my own, and the reviews for On Chesil Beach have more range than most. Some readers see Florence as a willing but naive and nervous participant. Others say she’s obviously asexual or a lesbian. Still others argue that she’s traumatized from childhood sexual abuse. A few reviews say Florence feels the way she does because she’s a woman and women don’t like sex. With the exception of the generalization about all women, all interpretations are valid. In some ways, On Chesil Beach is more of an ink blot than a book. It’s astonishing that such a detailed story, in which neither Florence nor Edward moves an inch without analyzing the action and response, can lead to such a wide range of interpretations.

There are some cringe-inducing descriptions of the wedding night activities, but they don’t necessarily reflect badly on the author’s skill. These “bad” descriptions are filtered through Edward and Florence’s perspective. Edward is overly enthusiastic, and Florence is pushing down feelings of disgust—neither is going to describe things neutrally.

Despite the ultimate tragedy, things begin optimistically:

And they had so many plans, giddy plans, heaped up before them in the misty future, as richly tangled as the summer flora of the Dorset coast, and as beautiful. Where and how they would live, who their close friends would be, his job with her father’s firm, her musical career and what do do with the money her father had given her, and how they would not be like other people, at least, not inwardly. This was still the era—it would end later in that famous decade—when to be young was a social encumbrance, a mark of irrelevance, a faintly embarrassing condition for which marriage was the beginning of a cure. Almost strangers, they stood, strangely together, on a new pinnacle of existence, gleeful that their new status promised to promote them out of their endless youth—Edward and Florence, free at last! (6-7)

The only thing in their way is that wedding night.

Overall 4.8 (out of 5.0). It’s a compact book with few wasted words. A story and characters emerge almost imperceptibly. The end provides more closure for one character than the other, which feels off after everything previous balanced them so well.

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