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Book Review: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Book Review: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

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“This is how the entire course of a life can be changed - by doing nothing.”

I picked up On Chesil Beach from the library because I saw that Saiorse Ronan is one of the leads in the movie version. I have loved everything I have seen her in, especially Lady Bird. So when I saw she was going to be in another Ian McEwan adaptation, I knew I had to read it. On Chesil Beach is a pretty short novel, but it definitely packs a punch. This is the story of Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting, a newly married couple in 1962 on their wedding night. We first see the couple eating dinner and experiencing their first night together, then the story flashes back to their early relationship and even their childhoods.

The description on the back of the book makes it pretty clear that this is not going to be a happy ever after for Edward and Florence. Though I didn’t really expect that from Ian McEwan in the first place. It soon becomes clear that these two virgins are struggling with what comes next after their wedding night dinner. Edward is dying to finally be with Florence, while Florence is absolutely terrified of consummating the marriage. In the past, Florence always refused anything more than hand-holding and chaste kisses. Any time Edward tried anything more, Florence pulled away and refused to touch him for weeks. So Edward is excited that it is finally happening, and Florence knows she should just suffer through because even though she is petrified, she really loves Edward. Instead of talking about what the other expects and wants, neither one says anything. What ensues completely unravels their relationship and goes on to effect the rest of their lives.

This quiet novel, only about 200 pages long, does not have much action. Most of the novel is internal and is really just Edward and Florence's thoughts and memories. But don’t let that fool you; this story is powerful. There is barely any dialogue until the last quarter of the story, but by then, you already know nothing will be the same for these two.

I found it very interesting to read about a young couple just before the sexual revolution and see the two different perspectives. I thought that Florence might be asexual, but that is never explicitly stated, just heavily implied. There are also some other hints of issues for Florence and Edward individually, but I think the novel was all the more intriguing by keeping everything vague.

This is only my second McEwan novel, but Atonement has long been a favorite of mine. I like how McEwan writes such complex characters in these period pieces. He uses the societal norms and niceties of the period to cause misunderstandings and haunt his characters.  Miscommunication, or in this case a lack of communication, is a big issue for Edward and Florence and for several characters in Atonement. I would be willing to bet that this is a big theme for all of McEwan's novels. 

I am definitely excited to see On Chesil Beach, and now I’m tempted to reread Atonement and watch the movie (excuse me while I go drool over James McAvoy). If you are looking for a great character study, I definitely recommend On Chesil Beach. I give it 4 stars.

What other Ian McEwan novels should I read?

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