Saturday, September 1, 2007

On Chesil Beach, a review


I realized recently that my summer was bookended (excuse the pun) by two books about marriage. At the beginning of the summer I read On Chesil Beach: A Novel, by Ian McEwan, and at the end of the summer I read Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees: A Novel. One of the stories is about a marriage aborted, the other about a marriage defined and then redefined.

In this post, I’ll ramble a little about Ian McEwan’s slim book, On Chesil Beach, and I'll tackle The Maytrees later.

In what is almost certainly for most an irrelevant aside, I first want to comment on the size of this book. It’s only 203 pages long, so it’s not only slim but physically small, about 4 3/4 inches by 7 1/2 inches, but it is hardbound. There is something about a hardbound book of this size, something about how it fits in your hand and weighs so little, and it could almost fit in your pocket, that makes it elegant. I liked it for this reason even before I read it, because it reminded me of descriptions of the size of books from long ago, octavo, duodecimo, sextodecimo, which have always intrigued me.

On Chesil Beach is the story of two very young people, Edward, a student of history, and Florence, a classical musician, who were married earlier that day, and who have come to honeymoon in a hotel on the English coast. Soon they have also come to an impasse over their sexual life, but I won’t say more, so as not to be a spoiler. The novel takes place over the course of that one day in July of 1962, but of course McEwan expands on this, and we also learn about Florence and Edward’s pasts, and what brought them to this place.

McEwan’s earlier novel Saturday, which also takes place over the course of one day, and in which McEwan also skillfully interweaves past and present, is a richer novel, but On Chesil Beach, while less weighty, has some gem-like pieces of writing.

McEwan writes gorgeously about music, and appropriately, it is through her music that we get to know Florence. She is from a more sophisticated background than Edward, but she is less emotionally sophisticated than he is, perhaps because he has been tempered by personal family tragedy. But both characters are crippled by the times in which they live. They don’t have the emotional vocabulary to discuss their feelings, and they simply cannot bridge the sexual gap between them.

I don’t know why it was hard for me to put myself into that place, when intellectually I knew McEwan was taking us there. The first sentences of the novel are: “They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy.” I understand that it was a different time, and a different place, but it was hard for me not to solve Florence and Edward’s problems with communication by communicating for them as I read the novel—I made up the conversations they might have had, if they could only talk about their issues.

It was easier for me to wrap my mind around the class differences that caused problems between Edward and Florence than it was to understand their problems with sexual intimacy. But ultimately I did understand, and surrendered to McEwan’s intended experience--I guess I just found it frustrating at first.

McEwan evokes the pre-sexual revolution world of 1962, and the embarrassment and fears about sex, with painful detail. He has also crafted an overwhelmingly sad story. The lost opportunities, the things left unsaid, resonated with me for a long time.

For me, the most satisfying part of the novel was its ending, in which McEwan talks about how the couple had been married that day in a world on the cusp of change, and he then describes that change. The end of the novel is a kind of meditation on what might have been, and it helped me through the sadness of the story.

21 comments:

Literary Feline said...

I quite enjoyed reading your review of this one. I've heard mixed reactions about this latest book by McEwan and so have been hesitant and adding it to my wishlist, but I think I definitely well after reading your review. I read Atonement by the author earlier this year and fell in love with his writing style. I have Saturday in my TBR collection still to read and am looking forward to that one. Thanks for the review!

Gentle Reader said...

literary feline--I have to say that I enjoyed both Atonement and Saturday more than On Chesil Beach, but it was a book that grew on me. I probably liked it better on reflection than I did while reading it, which is not my usual reading experience...

Stephanie said...

What a great review!! I think I'm one of the few people that have never read a McEwan novel!! Which one would you recommend as a good place to start??

Gentle Reader said...

stephanie--it's hard to say. Atonement was my favorite, but it's a certain kind of thing--a period piece, set around WWII, and it's all about moral ambiguity. Saturday is a contemporary, post-9/11 tale about human aggression and the capacity for forgiveness, and I liked it a lot, too.

I read Amsterdam a long time ago, and it was very dark and depressing, but I still enjoyed the writing. I haven't read Enduring Love, but I've heard it's good, but also on the dark side.

On Chesil Beach is good, and very short, but I don't feel it's his best novel, so I hesitate to say you should start with it...

So if you like a sweeping, historical kind of thing, go with Atonement.

If you want something more modern, try Saturday.

There you have it--probably more than you wanted :) Hope that helps!

John Mutford said...

I'm with Stephanie, I'm another of those who haven't yet read a McEwan (despite putting him up on my Wednesday compare thing. Atonement has been on my TBR list for quite some time and that's probably the one I'll start with. Thanks for the suggestions!

Booklogged said...

Add me to the list who haven't read McEwan. So far I don't even feel tempted. You did a nice job of reviewing this book, though. I've read a few books that I didn't particularly care for, but for some reason it stayed with me and cured a bit over time.

Gentle Reader, I've tagged you for a meme at my blog, In Season.

Gentle Reader said...

john--It was fun to do the compare this week! A tough one for me. I think McEwan is a beautiful stylist, but I understand why some people don't connect with him emotionally. I found Atonement a really satisfying read, however--hope you do, too!

booklogged--ooh, thanks, I'll go over to In Season and check it out--I like memes!

Yolanda said...

I have both of this on my reading list. Thanks for the review.

Lotus Reads said...

Hello, Gentle Reader!

As always, an awesome review! I really enjoyed the physical description of the book, you're right, it is tiny and very elegant.

I have to say I wasn't too crazy about "On Chesil Beach", but I know several people that enjoyed it, including our Man Booker panelist! Do you think McEwan will be given the Booker for this one?

Again, thank you for a truly thoughtful review GR, I have so enjoyed reading it.

Jeane said...

I am yet another reader who never heard of McEwan before, but he sounds great. I think I'm going to try Atonement first. Great Review!

Matt said...

"a student of history, and Florence, a classical musician,..."

This is all it takes to get me hooked. But I'll wait for the trade paperback since I have to be on a tight budget.

My first pick from McEwan would be Atonement.

Gentle Reader said...

yolanda--you're welcome, and check back in if you read it!

lotus--Thanks! It felt funny commenting on the size of the book, but I thought it was so different than most books out there, and I really loved the feel of it in my hands!

I hope McEwan doesn't get the Booker for this, because it clearly isn't his best work. It's too slight to win the Booker, in my humble opinion. I enjoyed it for what it was, but I think his weightier novels are prize-worthy, and this isn't.

jeane--I'd say Atonement is my favorite of his books, so I'd recommend it to a first-timer. But I know some bloggers really didn't respond to it, so you can take my recommendation with a grain of salt :)

matt--You can definitely wait for the paperback. It's worth reading, but don't spend too much money on it!

Dewey said...

I enjoyed this book, too, and I had the exact same experience, wanting to jump in and do their communicating for them.

Gentle Reader said...

dewey--Hee hee, glad I'm not the only one! And it made me feel so modern and American, thinking I could solve their problems for them if I could just get them to talk to each other!

Bookfool said...

I've yet to read McEwan and, like Literary Feline, I've read mixed reviews about On Chesil Beach. Your review was so captivating that I'd really like to read the book, now. Beautifully written!

Gentle Reader said...

bookfool--I really like McEwan's writing, but this is definitely not his best work. I think it's worth reading, but I have to recommend his earlier stuff more :)

Celia said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
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