Thursday, October 21, 2010

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

On Chesil Beach

by Ian McEwan
published 2007
completed September 2010

Florence and Edward, having married earlier in the day, are in their hotel room eating dinner together.  The story takes place in 1962.  The narrative switches between the bride and groom, both virgins, and the tension is high as they explore their fear and apprehension towards consummating their marriage.

On Chesil Beach is more of a novella; you could definitely read it in one sitting.  Not surprisingly, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize as many of his novels have been.  McEwan's writing is superb, as usual.  His prose is beautifully descriptive but serves a purpose, and it never crosses into self-indulgence.  Throughout the book, there are glimpses into the past that detail Florence and Edward's backgrounds.  Some of the most beautiful passages were describing their period of courtship.  This couple truly loved each other.  The descriptions of their passion for their work--Florence as a violinist and Edward as a historian--were fantastic.

Although I loved the writing, early on in the book I was frustrated with the characters.  I understand that at the time sex was something that people didn't talk about openly, but the lack of communication caused so many difficulties.  Both Florence and Edward were incredibly selfish.  I felt Florence was especially deceitful.  There is a great quote in the book that sums up my grievance with the characters.  "This is how the entire course of life can be changed--by doing nothing."

I have mixed feelings about this book.  I have had the same difficulty with several of McEwan's novels.  I love the writing, but I don't care for the characters.  I loved Atonement but hated Briony (Cecilia and Robbie were enough to keep me from hating it though).  I loved the first half of Amsterdam but the characters turned horrid in the second half, and it ruined the book for me.  My frustration with the characters choices keeps me from wholeheartedly recommending it.  I think McEwan fans will love it, but, in my opinion, this isn't his best.

This book was read as a bonus for the Classics Challenge.  It was recommended as a future classic by one of the challenge participants.  I don't know if I agree that it will be a future classic, but then again, I don't love all of the current classics.  Everyone has different taste in books so I guess we'll have to wait and see.


  1. I thought this was one of his better ones ... but, like you said, his characters can be incredibly frustrating. You want to jump into the story and yell at them.

  2. The only one I've read is Atonement but I loved it. And I hated Briony but I felt that was the point. I don't think I have this on the shelf but I think I have Amsterdam. I've also heard interesting things about Saturday.

    Hope your next one for McEwan is a little better!

  3. I've read most of his books at this point and I agree that the characters can be frustrating. In this book I just couldn't believe the complete and total lack of communication. The writing is gorgeous though.

  4. Jenners--I wanted to yell at them too!

    Trish--I think I'll give McEwan one more shot. I loved Atonement as well. I think what helped is that I hated Briony but I don't think McEwan was trying to make me feel sympathetic towards her. I felt like McEwan expected sympathy for the characters in On Chesil Beach, but I couldn't give them any. They were so selfish.

    Avid Reader--I loved Atonement, but haven't loved his other books. I still think he is a brilliant writer. I just have a difficult time getting into a book if I don't feel an emotional connection with the characters.