Book Review: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 1/1/08


  On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan is an OK book, but nothing more than that. It’s not bad, and nor is it really good either. It’s actually one of those books that after having finished it, upon reflection, I do not think it’s as good as I first thought. I actually do not understand the public’s obsession with McEwan. Critics seem to praise him to no end, talking about how immensely talented he is. Is he a bad writer? No. Is he a great writer? Still no. I read Atonement a few years back and found it to be very boring. Then I skimmed (I admit) through Saturday and found it to be an a-b-c plot-driven tale with no wowing language. So now in my third attempt, I can say that On Chesil Beach is probably the best work from him I’ve seen, yet it is still in no way a great work.

  The tale, although on the cover says it’s a ‘novel’ is really a novella, for the book is one of those tiny ones you could stick in your pocket and pull out while waiting in the dentist’s office. The sections are divided into five parts, all with large amounts of white space and added page numbers, giving this little book just barely over 200 pages. Now, having said that—this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, for it is quite possible McEwan is at his best when kept short, for what I found in Atonement, the man tends to ramble.

  On Chesil Beach tells the tale of Edward and Florence—set in 1962 at a Georgian Inn—on their wedding night. Both virgins, each are worried about not disappointing the other, yet Florence admits that she is ‘repulsed’ by the ideas of sex. The first scene we see them sitting over dinner and being excessively polite to one another. We see them playing eye games, as well as knowing what muses though their minds. Here is actually one of the nicer scenes in the book, some description McEwan uses to define their relationship:

  Their courtship had been pavane, a stately unfolding, bound by protocols never agreed or voiced but generally observed. Nothing was ever discussed—nor did they feel the lack of intimate talk. These were matters beyond words, beyond definition. The language and practice of therapy, the currency of feelings diligently shared, mutually analyzed, were not yet in general circulation.

  “That’s not so bad,” you are thinking. No, it’s not, which is why I marked it and what keeps me from saying that McEwan is a bad writer. He clearly is not. However, as the book progresses, we learn a bit of their backgrounds, how Florence is a violinist and loves classical music and how Edward loves rock and roll, and how ultimately their courtship and marriage was one of comfort because neither really has that much in common with the other.

  As a reader, I sympathized far more with Edward over Florence, for I really felt that he was at least trying, once they were up in their honeymoon suite, to show her physical affection. McEwan describes the disgust Florence feels towards Edward’s intimacy as well as his kissing, and in a moment of semi-eroticism, before Florence has a chance to “lead him to penetration” (something she read about in a new bride’s book that said it was OK for the woman to do that) Edward “arrives too quickly” and Florence is disgusted by his semen that is now drying all over her. So what does she do? She dashes out the door and begins running onto the beach. Then, Edward feels hurt (and rightfully so) and so he follows her out, finds her, and they confront one another. She basically tells him she was revolted by the act, and he calls her frigid and a bitch. Then she invites the idea of merely being with him and allowing him to engage other women while they stay married. Edward, of course, is insulted and hurt by her suggestion and so she tells him she is sorry, that this is just how she is. Then she goes on her way, leaves the inn, and the two get a divorce, never to see each other again.

  By this point, as a reader, I was just merely agitated by the characters. The scene moved too quickly and it just wasn’t believable that this couple would go from such excessive politeness to sudden arguing as though they’d been married for a decade, all because he ejaculated too soon. Get over it! So as I continued to read and roll my eyes, years and a few pages go by till we reach the 1990s, and then we get Edward reflecting back at the end of the tale, believing that Florence’s offer hadn’t been so bad after all, that she was only thinking in his best interest and how she was “ahead of her time.” And then McEwan attempts to explain it all: 

  When he thought of her, it rather amazed him, that he had let that girl with the violin go. Now, of course, he saw that her self-effacing proposal was quite irrelevant. All she had needed was the certainty of his love, his reassurance that there was no hurry when a lifetime lay ahead of them. Love and patience—is only he had had them both at once—would surely have seen them both through.

  “Love and patience.” Yawn. These few sentences sum up the gist of what I was getting while reading Atonement: too much preachy telling. It is here where I can say that McEwan does not trust the intelligence of his audience to figure that out for themselves. Also, he is forgetting the fact that these two characters pretty much had nothing in common to begin with, so it’s no great loss that they’re not together. So my question is, why bother writing a book about these two characters who are no doubt better off without one another, and then add sentimentality as though it had all meant something significant? It is a necessary question. And in case you were wondering, here is the last sentence of the book:

  Instead, he stood in cold and righteous silence in the summer’s dusk, watching her hurry along the shore, the sound of her difficult progress lost to the breaking of small waves, until she was a blurred, receding point against the immense straight road of shingle gleaming in the pallid light.

  That any top-tier writer would allow such clichés to be in any work, much less end it is beyond me. That is why McEwan is not a top-tier writer, regardless of all the Booker Prizes and nominations for this and that he has gathered. He is, for lack of a better word, a literary lightweight. And so I’ll return to what I said in the beginning, On Chesil Beach is an OK book with some decent parts and some clichés. It’s not a bad way to fill the time while you’re waiting for your plane to depart or for the dentist to see you now, but just don’t expect to be pondering it much past the actual pages. You actually won’t mind it when your name is being called.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]


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