On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwen (2007)

chesilI’m not sure how Ian McEwen does it, but he seems to get into the core of human relationships, pulling out the raw feelings that people experience and describing them in a way that makes us nearly drown in each character’s emotional turmoil. Creating the ‘I’m right there experiencing this with you‘ feeling is the true gift of a writer to the reader, and it’s tricky enough to pull off in just about any scene, but McEwen manages to do this with uncomfortably difficult, awkward, intimate scenes.  In this case, it’s Florence and Edward, a newly married couple–on their wedding night.  And that’s the central scene.  All 200 pages revolve around this embarrassingly awkward moment when it’s time for these two virgins to consummate their marriage.  For months, Edward has anxiously waited, though he fears failure, while Florence harbors nervous dread.  She can’t stand having his tongue in her mouth; anything more intrusive disgusts her.  Needless to say, it doesn’t work out well. What does work out well is McEwen’s treatment of the scene.  The chilling reality of each moment is broken up with flashbacks into their relationship and their love.  Because Florence really does love him (at least as much as she understands how love works). But she has no physical desire, and as she begins to experience the depth of this realization, we see her agony.


McEwen begins the novel with these direct words: “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.”  It almost seems as though he gives too much away in the first two lines, but he pulls us so intimately into the life of this innocent, timid couple that I didn’t mind the summary opening.


I wasn’t crazy about the final section of the book—it glazed over too many events and too much time, and I thought it unnecessary to offer such a complete ‘outcome’.  The gem of the book is the hour or so that unfolds over the prior 192 pages.  (fiction)

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