I’ve tried to read Ian McEwan before but failed epically. I’d picked up Atonement, put down Atonement, saw (and loved!) the film based on the novel and tried again . . . but nothing. It was dense. It was muddled. It felt like wading through tremendously deep, murky water — with no hope of ever pulling myself out alive.
But then I started hearing about On Chesil Beach, and I was immediately intrigued — partially because of the size, I admit. At 203 pages in its paperback form, I thought, “Hey — I can digest this. I can totally digest this!”
And what I actually did was inhale it.
Newlyweds Florence and Edward have just arrived at a hotel on Chesil Beach in England for their honeymoon. It’s 1962, early days — before the so-called “sexual revolution” that was to come, before young people were given permission (by whom?) to live lives of wild abandon or explore any career opportunity or seek out pleasure in any form they so desired. Florence shifts beef around on her dinner plate with a disgust as “palpable as seasickness,” absolutely dreading the consummation of their relationship she knew would have to happen that night. Edward is also nervous and apprehensive — but he is laden down with performance anxiety and nervous anticipation about whether or not he will be in “top form for his bride.”
The entire story envelopes over the course of just a few hours on that wedding night — and nearly all of it in their hotel room and on the shingled beach below it. It reminded me very much of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway in that regard — a slow, paced journey through one day that begs to ask the question, “How did we get here?”
And we discover, more or less, precisely how we got here: We learn of Florence’s extreme musical prowess, her devotion to the quartet she formed, her love of music and the violin, her emotional and physical distance from her parents. While she swears she loves Edward dearly, she cannot even fathom making love to him — it’s beyond her realm of understanding. She grew up in an austere home where physical expressions of love were taboo, unheard of; she can barely allow Edward to kiss her open-mouthed, let alone accompany him on the rest of that physical journey. But she desperately wants him to be happy, not to appear “frigid” to him (my sister and her women’s studies course classmates would have a field day with this one! Betty Friedan, anyone?) and to please him in any way she can. But her visceral dread of the act keeps her barely loosening an elbow.
And Edward, on the other hand, grew up with a loving — if painfully eccentric — mother, a father who struggled to maintain order in their messy existence and a desire to do nothing more than get through his teenage years in order to allow his “real” life to begin. He has no contempt for his parents and the squalor of the cottage in which he grew up; he doesn’t hate his life or beg mercifully for it to be over. He merely feels that, as a young man, he’s far too constrained by his own youth — he wants out. He wants to be a man. And marriage seems to be the best, if only, way to do this — to achieve respect and grow up in the eyes of all around him.
I really loved this book . . . and I’m surprised by how much I loved this book. It was all internal, of course, with very little quantifiable action or dialogue . . . so if that’s not your thing, I would seriously consider skipping this one (and probably McEwan in general, but don’t quote me on that). What we gained from staying solely inside the minds and memories of our two main characters was what was so heartbreaking. Edward and Florence really did seem to love one another, if just not in a “conventional” way. I related with a bit of a twinge to Florence’s overwhelming anxieties about entering the adult world — what she would be giving up in order to be someone’s wife, though she believed she was prepared to accept the consequences. I’ll try not to give away too much here, but suffice it to say I wasn’t shocked by the turn of events happening on Chesil Beach . . . but I was disappointed. Not in McEwan’s fine writing, but in the burden of things said and unsaid.
Of the many “quotable” quotes in this story, I might have loved this one the best:
This is how the entire course of a lifetime can be changed — by doing nothing.
The importance of communication can’t be overrated in this one! But Florence just couldn’t reach across the divide. I don’t fault her for it. But do I fault Edward? Maybe a little. Perhaps I, too, will change my opinion in time . . .
And I couldn’t stop thinking of Louise Glück’s “Mock Orange” the entire time I was reading this last night — this poem rose from out of the muddled memories of myEnglish degree, and concentration in poetry. Glad I’m using it for something . . . and I think I’ll end on that note!
It is not the moon, I tell you.
It is these flowers
lighting the yard.
I hate them.
I hate them as I hate sex,
the man’s mouth
sealing my mouth, the man’s
and the cry that always escapes,
the low, humiliating
premise of union—
In my mind tonight
I hear the question and pursuing answer
fused in one sound
that mounts and mounts and then
is split into the old selves,
the tired antagonisms. Do you see?
We were made fools of.
And the scent of mock orange
drifts through the window.
How can I rest?
How can I be content
when there is still
that odor in the world?
5 out of 5!