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On Chesil Beach – Book Review

They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. -From On Chesil Beach, page 3-

Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach is the story of two people – Edward and Florence – who marry in 1962, on the cusp of the sexual revolution. They come from starkly different pasts. Edward is the son of a poor farmer, while Florence comes from a wealthy background. Florence is a gifted musician who loves classical music, and although Edward loves to watch Florence play the violin, his musical interests lie in rock and roll. But it is not only their pasts and interests which diverge in this slim novel, but their expectations of intimacy. Early on the reader feels a sense of unease about Florence, that there is a secret she clasps close to her heart while emotionally isolating herself from others.

All these years she had lived in isolation within herself and, strangely, from herself, never wanting or daring to look back. In the stone-floored echoing hall with the heavy low beams, her problems with Edward were already present in those first few seconds, in their first exchange of looks. -From On Chesil Beach, page 76-

On Chesil Beach takes place mostly on the eve of Edward and Florence’s wedding where the expectations around consummating the marriage create the tension in the novel. Each character brings with them a past which shapes the present…and ultimately their future.

McEwan is a precise writer who has sharpened his prose to a fine point in this stunning book about intimacy and empathy. Inaction can be more tragic than action – and On Chesil Beach demonstrates this idea vividly. McEwan is brilliant in the development of his characters – compressing their lives and drawing their motivations toward one moment in time which becomes irretrievable. The writing is absorbing and riveting and no word is wasted.

Many readers may find the subject matter uncomfortable, which I believe was McEwan’s intent. But those readers who overcome their discomfort will uncover a gem of a book which is sharply observed and compassionate.

On Chesil Beach was short listed for the Booker Prize in 2007.

Highly recommended.

16 Comments

  1. August 11, 2008    

    Not since “Northern Exposure” have I waited breathlessly for a couple to do “it.” I enjoyed this one too.

  2. August 11, 2008    

    I honestly had no idea that this was what Chesil Beach was about. I think I have this one somewhere in the house.

  3. August 11, 2008    

    LOL, Jill!! I loved Northern Exposure (talk about quirky!).

  4. August 11, 2008    

    You’re right, it was brilliantly written. It made me so sad for the couple – if they had lived in a different time, or known how to communicate…

  5. August 12, 2008    

    I have been reading your blog for a while now but I think this is my first comment! This book is on y the library reading group schedule for October I think and I didn’t know much about it until I read your review. I am definitely looking forward to reading it now…

  6. August 12, 2008    

    What a great review! I now know I MUST read tis book. I’ve never read any of McEwan’s books but I hear so many wonderful things about his writing. Thanks for sharing you thoughts. (p.s. I LOVED Northern Exposure too!!!)

  7. August 12, 2008    

    Great review! I already have this book on my TBR list.

  8. August 15, 2008    

    Yes, yes, yes!!! McEwan writes tension so very well, and like Joyce Carol Oates, I can never thank him enough for making me supremely uncomfortable. 😀 Glad you liked this one.

  9. August 16, 2008    

    Carrie: I felt sad for them too, Carrie…because I felt they had love between them, but the problem that arose (no pun intended!) was too big to overcome given their immaturity.

    Rhinoa: Hope you’ll enjoy it! Let me know 🙂 And thanks for reading my blog!

    Lisa: Thank you! I don’t know too many people who didn’t love Northern Exposure (at least in my generation… :))

    Bobbi: Thanks – hope you’ll get to read it soon.

    Andi: You know, I have never read an Oates book…and now I know I must! And yes, McEwan has a knack for making his readers uncomfortable 🙂

  10. August 16, 2008    

    This is a great review of the book! A gem of a book indeed.

  11. August 16, 2008    

    So you liked this one better than Atonement, eh? I’ll get to it eventually. I loved Atonement and enjoyed Saturday, but loathed Enduring Love. Amsterdam left me shaking my head.

  12. August 17, 2008    

    Lightheaded: Thanks 🙂

    Les: yup – and that is partly because there was no delay in me getting “into” the book as there was for Atonement. Although I ultimately enjoyed Atonement, I almost gave up on it in the early pages. I have yet to read Saturday but have heard good things about it.

  13. August 19, 2008    

    I haven’t read any of his books, but I keep hearing that this one is excellent.

  14. August 21, 2008    

    Suzi: I resisted (for some unknown reason) reading McEwan’s novels…I just thought maybe they were being over-hyped. But I can really recommend this one.

  15. August 21, 2008    

    Really nice review! I own a copy of this book and should really get to it soon.

  16. August 22, 2008    

    It is a really fast read, Teddy!

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