On Chesil beach is short but sweet

By Colin Williams

Ian McEwan has achieved notoriety for everything he has published in the past decade. His 1997 novel, “Enduring Love,” won critical acclaim and was made into a film. His 1998 novel “Amsterdam” won the Booker prize and his 2001 and 2005 novels, “Atonement” and “Saturday,” each won their own share of acclaim and awards as well as both being shortlisted for the Booker prize. (“Atonement” also happens to be one of the best novels I’ve ever read.) After all of this, his latest release, “On Chesil Beach,” which was shortlisted for the Booker prize, stands strongly on its own.”On Chesil Beach” focuses on the wedding night of Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting in 1962 at a hotel on Chesil Beach. Both Edward and Florence are quirky virgins who have barely gone beyond kissing, and much of the plot tension is derived from Edward’s overeager anticipation and Florence’s disgust with the idea of sex. As they each progress timidly toward sex, they recall the buildup of their relationship. Edward is a simple man of modest upbringing who leaves his sick mother and family to attend school. Florence is an extremely talented violinist who likewise leaves home for college. Though both study in London, they actually meet at home in Oxford (where both grew up) at a meeting to protest nuclear weapons. They quickly fall in love, and things progress from there. However, when it comes time to consummate their marriage, both stall. After a tense bout of indecision and foreplay, they finally fall into bed-upon which Edward prematurely comes and Florence runs from the room, creating a really awkward situation. When Edward confronts her on the beach, they have a falling out, accusing each other of being at fault. Eventually they bitterly go their separate ways. Edward becomes a hippie for awhile, runs a record store, and both grow old, unaware of each other’s doings.

The novel is a short and sweet 203 pages. The main action is all in the honeymoon suite and in the minds of the characters, yet McEwan makes this work. The constant ebb and flow of sexual tension as well as the eccentricities of both characters keeps the reader in suspense. Since the novel takes place before the heyday of the sexual revolution, the young couple is relatively ill informed about sex. Edward is over-excited and has issues with anger, while Florence is portrayed as “frigid” and is haunted by a questionable history with her father. McEwan develops these aspects without being overly explicit or unreasonable. The only slightly subpar part of the novel for me was the ending. Although the book is a good read and leads to a solid conclusion, it flashes too quickly through Edward’s later years. Though the novel’s actual plot is simple and unfolds slowly, “On Chesil Beach” is nonetheless a page-turner, and I found my interest constantly piqued.

McEwan is a master of prose. The writing is never too much, but all of the details are there, from the dinner in the hotel to the pebbles on the beach to the smell of oranges the couple share on their first date. Although “On Chesil Beach” is not as complex as “Atonement” in its plot or content, the prose has the same level of finesse. In addition, McEwan’s setting and timing of the novel is particularly original. Seldom do writers deal with the more everyday aspects of postwar life while still incorporating little nuggets of politics and social norms. The novel is truly a mature one, and also an interesting view of simplicity amid many more sexual and violent novels.

While “On Chesil Beach” will probably not ultimately be viewed as McEwan’s best work, it is still brilliant and certainly worthy of its own accolades. The novel’s message of love and sex is approachable, and McEwan’s development of the characters is superb. “On Chesil Beach” is never too much or not enough. McEwan has written another masterpiece. This novel is a quick and worthwhile read.