Ian McEwan’s novels never fail to engage me, whether they are over 500 pages or under 200. The same can be said about his 2007 novella, On Chesil Beach, which is about the ill-fated wedding night of a young couple, Edward and Florence.
Florence is a talented violinist, and Edward is a young historian, and as the story of their family and upbringing unfold, it’s obvious that they came from two very different worlds – Florence from an upper-middle class family, with a professor for a mother and a successful businessman for a father. Florence spent her childhood learning music, traveling, and staying at the best hotels. However, Edward lived in virtual squalor in a small cottage, his mother barely able to maintain the upkeep of the household. Edward and his twin sisters were raised by their father, who was the headmaster of a small village school, to the best of his abilities. Though Edward graduated with a university degree in History, he did not have the privileges that Florence had growing up. Outwardly, the two young individuals don’t seem to have anything in common, but as fate would have it, they met and fell in love.
The couple’s courtship lasted a year, in which they got to know each other’s personalities and quirks, both certain that what they felt was certainly love. Florence, fiercely ambitious about her career, was only interested in playing the violin and being loved by and loving Edward. Edward, could not believe his luck in meeting a girl like Florence, who was beautiful, talented, and sophisticated. Primary on his mind, unlike Florence, who longed for romance and companionship, was sex. Thinking that marriage was the key to intimacy, Edward proposed to Florence.
The novella opens on Florence and Edward’s wedding night at a hotel on Chesil Beach, as they are having dinner in their room. Outwardly, the couple seem happy and carefree, but inwardly, both were fighting to control their own fears and emotions. They were both virgins, and inexperienced in the matter of sex, and both harbored very different thoughts on the inevitable. Edward, who had waited over a year for this moment, can barely contain his excitement, while Florence, whose knowledge on the subject came from a pamphlet, is terrified of the intimate ordeal. From their reticence on the subject, keeping their fears and expectations to themselves, one would think it was 1862 instead of 1962. With Edward waiting all his life for this moment and Florence feeling nothing short of revulsion toward the intimate act, readers will soon realize that nothing good will come out of their honeymoon night.
On Chesil Beach gives readers a glimpse of what happens to couples on their honeymoon night, even if it’s not your typical couple on a typical wedding night. Readers are privy to the very different thoughts and feelings of Florence and Edward, which are complicated and insightful but also sometimes quite ridiculous and humorous. Despite the humorous bits in the beginning, On Chesil Beach is a rather sad and deep novel that depicts not only social and cultural issues in the 1960s but also the life-changing consequences of action and inaction.
Though a very short novel (it can be read in one sitting), On Chesil Beach leaves a rather heavy feeling in its wake, and at the end of the novel, readers might have certain feelings of regret not particularly felt by the main characters. I found this novel very interesting because I could relate to some of its characters, sharing their thoughts and feelings. Although short, On Chesil Beach exerts a powerful impact.
I first tried to read this novel in 2009 but never got past the first few pages. I read it again last weekend, to “cleanse my palate” after Anna Karenina before going on to my next big read. Although I had planned to read it over the weekend, it took me four days to actually finish it. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys brief but meaningful stories or to big fans of Ian McEwan (like myself).
On Chesil Beach (2007) – Ian McEwan
Doubeday; 203 pages (hardbound)
Personal rating: 4/5