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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan


Title: On Chesil Beach
Author: Ian McEwan
Reviewed Format: paperback
Release Date: June 10, 2008
Pages: 203

It’s 1962.  Edward and Florence have just gotten married and now face the colossal expectation looming before their nuptial dinner table: sex.  Don’t be confused--On Chesil Beach isn’t just about sex--there’s so much more to it than that.  In the spirit of Mrs. Dalloway and McEwan’s more recent Saturday, On Chesil Beach culminates in an exhausting and contemplative day that speaks for a waning culture struggling to transition in the face of a worldwide explosion of television, rock and roll, and a war in Vietnam.

The narrative follows dramatic structure.  On the surface there is Edward and Florence with all of their apprehensions and anxieties over their wedding night.  The thoughts they distract themselves with lead to flashbacks into the past: their first meeting (told from both perspectives); introducing each other to their respective families; their first sexually-charged encounter.  These memories are made even more poignant in the narrative when they break the reader away from the present--the moment when Edward and Florence set into motion the unspoken momentum of their conjugal obligations.  As the couple navigates the strange and foreign land of their new relationship, so too do they struggle to rise above the norms of society that pull them in two different directions.



Both are, for lack of a better word, very British (in case I didn’t mention it, the story takes place in an imagined seaside hotel on the British coast).  Florence, and to a lesser extent, Edward, are bound by the protocols and rituals that date themselves within an era of burgeoning freedoms unimaginable and at times, disagreeable.  Florence’s love of classical music is jarringly sweet and evocative against Edward’s newly developed taste for rock and roll.  He has no patience for her type of music, the enchanting and layered sounds metaphorical of the complicated and invested plot of transition Ian McEwan has written.

The couple’s difficulties are intricately laid out in passionate internal monologues that mirror the frustrations and hopes for the Britain of 1962.  On Chesil Beach is a contemplative call to action, a warning: “This is how the entire course of a life can be changed--by doing nothing” (p. 203).  It’s a novel that can (and will, hopefully) be read again and again for an enduring message of love and patience; I’m still amazed it’s only a couple hundred pages long.  I love McEwan’s ability to inextricably link Edward and Florence’s relationship with the fate of British society and culture.  At the same time, their efforts are quite personal, however applicable elsewhere.  The structure of the narrative is one of my favorite parts of the novel.  Especially when Florence’s musical abilities (she plays for a string quarter) on the cello are taken into consideration; you can almost hear the musical score behind each act, the strings vibrating with the full range of human emotion as the couple propels themselves into a roller coaster of extremes.

One of Ian McEwan’s considerable talents is the ability to write a story as haunting and tragic as it is beautiful.  There is always something jarring about his work--the least expected event happens and turns the narrative upside down.  His characters are always so vivid and written with an air of contemplation.  Edward and Florence are by no means on the same footing when they approach each other across the chasm of their wedding bed--neither are they quite willing to discuss this.  Although neither is prepared on the same level as the other (nor expecting the same outcome), they overlook the ordinariness of the situation with a depth I’ve come to expect of McEwan.  But at the heart of this novel, despite the political and social intrusions that define their hesitations and enthusiasms, is the story of two young people arriving at one of the most defining moments of their lives--the one that defines their future for a lifetime.  I look forward to reading it again.

How many Jawas recommend this book?


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