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On Chesil Beach [Hardcover]

Ian McEwan
3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 3 2007
The #1 bestselling author of Saturday and Atonement brilliantly illuminates the collision of sexual longing, deep-seated fears and romantic fantasy in his unforgettable, emotionally engaging new novel.

The year is 1962. Florence, the daughter of a successful businessman and an aloof Oxford academic, is a talented violinist. She dreams of a career on the concert stage and of the perfect life she will create with Edward, the earnest young history student she met by chance and who unexpectedly wooed her and won her heart. Edward grew up in the country on the outskirts of Oxford where his father, the headmaster of the local school, struggled to keep the household together and his mother, brain-damaged from an accident, drifted in a world of her own. Edward’s native intelligence, coupled with a longing to experience the excitement and intellectual fervour of the city, had taken him to University College in London. Falling in love with the accomplished, shy and sensitive Florence – and having his affections returned with equal intensity – has utterly changed his life.

Their marriage, they believe, will bring them happiness, the confidence and the freedom to fulfill their true destinies. The glowing promise of the future, however, cannot totally mask their worries about the wedding night. Edward, who has had little experience with women, frets about his sexual prowess. Florence’s anxieties run deeper: she is overcome by conflicting emotions and a fear of the moment she will surrender herself.

From the precise and intimate depiction of two young lovers eager to rise above the hurts and confusion of the past, to the touching story of how their unexpressed misunderstandings and fears shape the rest of their lives, On Chesil Beach is an extraordinary novel that brilliantly, movingly shows us how the entire course of a life can be changed – by a gesture not made or a word not spoken.

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From Amazon

As powerful as it is slender, Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach--a gripping rumination on what the pact of marriage really means--is proof that even in this electronic age, few things are as captivating as a good story that's told well.

Laid across five slight chapters, On Chesil Beach begins in the honeymoon suite of Florence and Edward as they hover at the edge of the first-time intimacy that will corroborate, legally and spiritually, the vows they have already exchanged.

But simple sex is not so simple--unknown to Edward, who is delirious with lust, his bride harbors absolute revulsion for the act. Naturally, this is not news to Florence, who nevertheless pledged, before family and community, "With my body I thee worship! That's what you promised today," Edward reminds her at the book's paralyzing climax. "In front of everybody. Don't you realize how disgusting and ridiculous your idea is? And what an insult it is?"

Yet that idea--Florence's preconceived response to the inevitable mess she finds herself in on her wedding night--forms the tale's central question: when we wed, how much of ourselves are we obliged to reveal to our prospective mates?

If that sounds straightforward enough, you can bet a master novelist like McEwan spins it off in a million complex directions, tapping every available emotion. The plight of Florence and Edward resonates deeply long after readers have zoomed through the book's scant 166 pages.

Ironically, part of what makes the book so powerful is McEwan's delicate touch. As he tiptoes through Florence and Edward's respective back stories, we forget he's there, instead focusing on the almost palpable scenes he lays before us. This is storytelling at its most dynamic--vivid, persuasive and completely fluid. Though rendered in figurative watercolors, On Chesil Beach is a tiny, perfect masterpiece as lasting as a canvas infused with oils. --Kim Hughes

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Not quite novel or novella, McEwan's masterful 13th work of fiction most resembles a five-part classical drama rendered in prose. It opens on the anxious Dorset Coast wedding suite dinner of Edward Mayhew and the former Florence Ponting, married in the summer of 1963 at 23 and 22 respectively; the looming dramatic crisis is the marriage's impending consummation, or lack of it. Edward is a rough-hewn but sweet student of history, son of an Oxfordshire primary school headmaster and a mother who was brain damaged in an accident when Edward was five. Florence, daughter of a businessman and (a rarity then) a female Oxford philosophy professor, is intense but warm and has founded a string quartet. Their fears about sex and their inability to discuss them form the story's center. At the book's midpoint, McEwan (Atonement, etc.) goes into forensic detail about their naïve and disastrous efforts on the marriage bed, and the final chapter presents the couple's explosive postcoital confrontation on Chesil Beach. Staying very close to this marital trauma and the circumstances surrounding it (particularly class), McEwan's flawless omniscient narration has a curious (and not unpleasantly condescending) fable-like quality, as if an older self were simultaneously disavowing and affirming a younger. The story itself isn't arresting, but the narrator's journey through it is. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What a difference a decade makes Nov. 21 2007
Format:Hardcover
Was anyone ever as naive and blundering as Florence and Edward? These two young people in their early twenties demonstrate a depth of ignorance that dooms their wedding night. Ian McEwan's novella ON CHESIL BEACH covers the few hours in 1962 during which Florence and Edward eat a mediocre wedding dinner in a hotel suite, move to the bedroom where they botch the whole thing badly, and fail to say the one thing, offer the one reconciliaton that could have saved them.

The overriding gift of this little book is McEwan's beautiful writing, which truly takes center stage. The plot is closely contained within Florence and Edward's relationship and the events of their wedding night, and there is barely enough supporting documentation to justify his clumsiness and her terror.

The point is universally made by reviewers that all this was before the Sexual Revolution of the sixties and early seventies. It hardly seems enough to explain the complete lack of communication between these two, and especially Florence's fear of sex. McEwan throws out a few clues about the relationship between Florence and her father but chooses not to develop them, and it's a noticeable choice in such a short book.

Another choice McEwan made was to define the story so closely. ON CHESIL BEACH is unusual in this regard: it's a book that could have been longer. After the fine dissection of the wedding night, the last section pelts through several decades, as if the only thing about these two worth discussing was over and done with. The harsh last minutes of the wedding night, on the beach, might have been a fulcrum point for a longer story. That was not McEwans' choice, however.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Qualified Failure June 10 2007
By Ian Gordon Malcomson HALL OF FAME TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
In this novel, McEwan creates a story that deals with the intricacies of human emotions in the protracted process of becoming married. There is nothing pleasant or exciting to look forward to in this tale. As the narrative unfolds, McEwan examines a very deep and troubling side to marital experience as it moves from the first flirtations to the numerous assignations leading up, to the wedding ceremony and ending in the failure to consummate the marriage. As the main characters, cast as virtual `babes in the wood', both Florence and Edward enter such a life-changing relationship as actors merely playing to somebody else's script. They know very little about each other's lack of capacity to truly love and cherish each other. Living in a stuffed-shirt environment where people are encouraged to conform to society's expectations for success, they are doomed. It will take an ultimate moment of reckoning to expose that reality. Being the master of plot that he is, McEwan chooses the backdrop of wedding night bliss as the critical moment for revealing that tragic, yet strangely liberating, flaw. Florence and Edward, as solitary characters, were never meant for each other. McEwan is perhaps saying that such a revelation bears witness to how little we really know about ourselves outside our little worlds. The book is worth the read simply because of its endearing story, great character description and polished prose.
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5.0 out of 5 stars glows with authenticity July 31 2010
By mocha
Format:Paperback
This novel took me by storm. Not so much as I was reading it, but afterwards. "Chesil Beach" is a unique gem among many shiny stones. It glows with authenticity. It's about youth, innocence, coming of age, lack of communication and understanding, immaturity, and the life long impacts of some flawed decisions we make and actions we take when we are very young. Many books and movies deal with "coming of age" issues, but none have touched me like "On Chesil Beach". I lived and breathed this novel, and I suffered (for myself and for the characters in the book) long after the reading was done. From a perspective of 40 years hence, we are inspired to evaluate and reach some kind of understanding as to what we had (or might have had), what we lost, and why. This novel is a validation for the Enchantment and vulnerability of first loves, the kind where the heartache and longing are born forward in the quiet hours incognizant of the passage of time.
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3.0 out of 5 stars The world's longest foreplay Oct. 13 2008
Format:Paperback
One might expect that in a short 166-page book, major events would occur fairly early on, before the page numbers get too high into the double digits. Well, the action finally takes place after the page numbers hit the triple digits. Prior to that, one can experience the world's most drawn-out demonstration of sexual foreplay. Frankly, while it is wonderful to delve into the personal meaning and history of every shirt button that becomes undone, or the penetration depth of each kiss, most of my first hundred pages was spent wondering, "Is something going to happen here already?".
Well, it finally does, and the results of the activity help bring the book to a faster, more interesting close, but that's due to the post-carnal chain of events finally making the lead characters address (and run from) their issues, and permits decades of time to be covered in mere sentences.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "They were prisoners of their time" June 21 2007
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
The media reviews which have typified this book as symbolic of the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s are shortchanging McEwan's abilities as an observer and writer. He has managed to compress the life stories of two people within a meagre framework. The economy of his prose is only matched by his skill in conveying how two people develop into adults. That adulthood sits uncomfortably on both. Young, inexperienced and hestitant, McEwan's characters stand out as living refutations of 1960s stereotypes. As a testimonial to excellent writing, this book is without peer.

McEwan uses the setting of two people on their wedding night to weave an account of the post-war era. The pair were born at WWII's conclusion, but came to maturity in turbulent times. On the one hand, the long-standing British Empire was coming apart at the seams. India had already departed and African and Caribbean nations were struggling to follow suit. It was a time of seemingly great instability. On the other hand, it was also the age of John F. Kennedy. Kennedy seemed to offer fresh promise and the British people developed an ambition to follow that path. That attitude of hope was imbued in both Edward and Florence. Both, from vastly different backgrounds, groped through their young lives for means to depart from the norms they experienced as children. They have little tie to the "old values", but have only the vaguest notion of what new ones they should adopt. Britain, long in thrall of a class system, might cast off the shackles of conformity. Edward and Florence aren't truly aware of this shift in society, are inexperienced and fumbling in their sense of experiment. Both are aware of what they think they want from life, but neither is truly cognisant of the other's aims.
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Most recent customer reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars Story Gone Wrong
Ian is trying to be cute and he fails. I was bored. He could have told the story in a much more exciting way.
Published 8 months ago by annette
4.0 out of 5 stars Suspenseful, Engaging, and Thought Provoking
It’s pre-Sexual Revolution England, the early 1960s, and Florence and Edward are in a hotel room in southern England about to consummate their marriage. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Troy Parfitt
4.0 out of 5 stars More Bookish Thoughts...
I currently count Ian McEwan among my favourite novelists so I was excited to read his latest work, On Chesil Beach. Read more
Published on May 30 2011 by Reader Writer Runner
5.0 out of 5 stars As worthwhile as it gets
Wonderful story, excellent writing, perfect ending. The subtle misunderstandings among people, especially friends -- the plausibility and complexity of it all -- is what made this... Read more
Published on March 28 2010 by Andrew Delong
3.0 out of 5 stars Very indifferent
My feelings about this book are of great indifference. I neither loved it nor hated it. There are aspects that just didn't do it for me - it is a dark story, and seemed to drag... Read more
Published on Aug. 28 2009 by MD
2.0 out of 5 stars niether loved nor hated it
the storytelling is fantastic - but i was in the end quite disappointed as i had hoped the actual story to be richer. i suppose i just did not understand the characters. Read more
Published on Jan. 5 2009 by CeeGeeKay
3.0 out of 5 stars Fell Flat
It is 1962. The story opens with Edward and Florence just married and in their honeymoon sweet eating dinner. They are both nervous, as can be expected of two virgins. Read more
Published on Dec 28 2008 by Teddy
5.0 out of 5 stars Ending makes the novel
The novel comes to a slow boil and its ending is quietly devastating in how acutely it paints the haphazard ways our lives turn and how we will never be able to judge if we did the... Read more
Published on April 20 2008 by BookBabe
1.0 out of 5 stars Unimpressive
Despite the shortness of this novel, I still found this a difficult book to finish (though the fact that it's not as lengthy as the majority of his novels is the only reason that I... Read more
Published on April 10 2008 by Elle
1.0 out of 5 stars Lacking Plot
This novel was completely lacking in plot. I believe the author tried to make up for it by creating a long drawn out history of events leading up to the climax (or lack there of). Read more
Published on Oct. 25 2007 by Kathryn Shaw
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