Onyx reviews: On Chesil Beach by Ian
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
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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