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.