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
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)
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