Atonement, by Ian McEwan, usually falls in my top 5 novels. It’s a beautifully told story of deception, romantic love, and poetic license – one that haunted me for weeks after I read it. (The movie is coming out soon, too, I believe – I have mixed feelings about it, because I don’t see how a movie can do the book justice). So I was curious to try another McEwan and opted for On Chesil Beach, a short novel about a British couple’s honeymoon night in the early 60s. It’s a good book, but an odd one, and I still haven’t decided exactly what I think of it.

Florence and Edward, a couple in their 20s, are a mismatched pair in almost every way. His beginnings were as modest as hers were comfortable. She’s an accomplished classical violinist; he’s a history major flailing around for a career.  He’s a country boy at heart who can name birds and wildflowers; she grew up in academia with a cold professor mother who withheld affection and a shrewd businessman for a father. Yet somehow they met and fell in love. The book opens on their wedding night, where perhaps their cruelest mismatch comes into play – he’s desperate to consummate their marriage while she lives in fear and revulsion at the idea of physical contact with a man. Clearly not a promising start.

No question that McEwan is a wonderful writer. I liked this passage, describing the early sixties when the couple met: “Edward and Florence’s shared sense that one day soon the country would be transformed for the better, that youthful energies were pushing to escape, like steam under pressure, merged with the excitement of their own adventure together. The sixties was their first decade of adult life, and it surely belonged to them.”

I found the book odd because I think it is a weird thing to write about (especially compared to the vast scope of Atonement) – this inexperienced couple’s inability to communicate, physically and, ultimately, emotionally, and the havoc this inabiity wrought on their marriage and future. That’s not to say I didn’t like it. The minute descriptions of their disastrous attempts at sex were riveting, as well as Florence and Edward’s idiosyncracies – her obsessive stewardship of her string quartet, his tendency to get into bar brawls, for example – they fleshed out the main characters in this short but satisfying book. Again, I’d like to know how McEwan got the idea for this book, how long the story was percolating in his mind before he had no choice but to commit it to paper. Did the plot have its unfortunate roots in his own life?

Ultimately, it’s a sad book, about how a lack of communication at the most crucial and sensitive of crossroads in life can have tragic and irreversible consequences.

Kristin at BooksforBreakfast gave On Chesil Beach a 2.75 out of 5. I think I’d up it to a 3.


  • rissa winkelman
    November 25, 2007 - 12:02 pm | Permalink

    I read Saturday by McEwan and LOVED it.
    Have already bought Chesil Beach but have not yet started it, but will give you my review when I am done.
    Have read several very good books lately, however. Two are non-fiction:
    The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit
    What is the What (sort of non-fiction} and the fiction Swallows of Kabul

  • Nancy West
    November 26, 2007 - 11:18 am | Permalink

    I liked this book quite a lot. I found it interesting that McEwan used the Aristotalian drama convention (you know, the one we all learned in high school…) of having the time frame of the plot more or less equal to the time frame of reading the book. Other than the flashbacks and the epilogue, the action all takes place within about two hours…which is what it takes to read this very short novel. Though I’m not urging friends to race out and read it because the book is simply too short to get emotionally invested in the way a more in-depth novel is, I think the writing is excellent — as we expect of Ian McEwan. And I think the conclusions reached in the epilogue are particarly satisfying. The novel wouldn’t work nearly as well without that part.

  • Cara
    November 26, 2007 - 5:09 pm | Permalink

    Hi Gayle! Good to have read a book in common with you again! Read On Chesil beach for a book club where it got very mixed reviews but I thought it was excellent. McEwan’s skill was really on display as he captured the inner workings of each of the two and letting the reader really feel exactly how mis-matched they were. I also thought it nailed that youthful experience of being totally in love with someone but yet not knowing them at all. The only other McEwan I’ve read is Atonement (which I also loved)–think I’ll need to put more of his on my list.

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