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Onyx reviews: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan explored one fateful day in a man's life in his previous novel, Saturday. In On Chesil Beach, he narrows his focus even further, to a few crucial hours in the lives of a newlywed couple on their honeymoon at a hotel on the English Channel.

The year is 1962. The birth control pill is a distant rumor and the sexual revolution has not yet begun. While some of Edward and Florence's friends feel comfortable describing their conquests, exploits and romantic interludes in explicit detail, such is not the case for these two young adults. Though they are unquestionably in love and completely devoted to each other, there are crucial issues they have never discussed. Pronounced differences in their personalities may presage difficult times ahead. Edward has little patience with discussions of feelings, and Florence has no idea where to begin.

Though the plot covers only a brief span of time in the book's present, McEwan flashes back to important scenes from their earlier lives. The unlikely confluence of events that allowed them to meet at an anti-nuke meeting. Their burgeoning romance. Edward's increasing frustration with the way Florence reacts to his advances. Meeting their respective and vastly dissimilar families.

McEwan is a master at exploring the minutia of daily life. The telling details of conversation, both verbal and non-verbal. He also excels at the omniscient point of view, dipping within characters' minds, first one, then the other. Changing perspective from one paragraph to the next, an approach that allows him to show readers how differently his characters are reacting to certain events. Edward believes Florence is thinking something but readers discover almost immediately that she is on a completely different wavelength.

Edward comes from a simple, rural home. His mother suffered a debilitating head injury when he was four. Since then she has been living in a fantasy world in which she believes she is tending to her family—cleaning the house, preparing meals—when in fact she spends her days snipping photographs from magazines and starting paintings she never finishes. Edward's father does not challenge her illusion and has been holding the family together ever since.

Florence's family, by contrast, is well to do, but Edward doesn't comprehend the level of their wealth. He simply thinks that is the way everyone else lives. He is accepted into their home with open arms, and he's not at all uncomfortable with their opulent lifestyle. Though they are rich and friendly, they are distant, and Florence has never had any personal affection from her parents. No endearing kisses, no warm hugs.

Another major difference between Edward and Florence is their tastes in music. Florence is the lead violinist in a string quartet. She believes this group will be her future and music her life. Edward tolerates her music and is supportive of her aspirations, but he finds classical boring after only brief exposures. He prefers the transitionary music that will become sixties rock. When he attempts to introduce Florence to it, she laughs. The drumming offends her. The music is so simple, all in 4/4 time, that she wonders why the piano and the rhythm guitar can't carry the beat without this overpowering percussion.

However, their biggest problem comes from the unspoken. Florence is repelled by the notion of sex. Even French kissing makes her queasy. She fully realizes that her oaths taken earlier that day imply consent on her part, and she is willing to withstand sex for her husband's sake, but she dreads the moment and wishes it were over. She has no words to express this debilitating fear to her husband, though. McEwan makes no attempt to explore the origin of Florence's frigidity. It's enough that it exists and must be dealt with.

For his part, Edward knows from his previous overtures how reticent she is. She has allowed him some gains in his siege on her body, but the setbacks that followed some of his other attempts clearly indicate that there's a problem. Lust and anticipation allow him to convince himself that she will change at the right moment.

Their first venture into the marriage bed is disastrous, and the aftermath worse. The climax that should have occurred between the sheets takes place instead on the sandy beach outside the inn. "This is how the entire course of a life can be changed—by doing nothing," McEwan's all-knowing narrator writes. Once the floodgates of communication open, there's no stopping them. As is often the case with arguments, the two begin by dancing around the important issues. Angry words are spoken, the sort that cannot be called back or forgotten. Edward asks Florence if she thinks he may have married her because her family is wealthy and her father has hired him into his firm. Unwilling to confront the real subject, Florence agrees that money is at issue, but in fact she's angry with for thinking it might be the problem.

Lives are made up of moments. Hasty decisions. Words said and, more importantly, words left unsaid. Edward is livid once he discovers the truth. He feels betrayed and deceived, and his cold, righteous anger prevents him from taking steps to keep their disagreement from entering catastrophic territory. Florence's proposed solution, which seems unconventional but hardly scandalous to modern readers, horrifies Edward.

On Chesil Beach, at 200 pages hardly more than a novella, is nonetheless powerful in its brevity. McEwan captures these characters' lives, hopes, dreams, disappointments and a few tragic hours that change everything, with a delicateness that makes it seem like a detailed painting, a moment captured forever in the memory of time.

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