With the film version of On Chesil Beach due out later this year, it seemed a good time to try another McEwan (also, a short novel felt manageable on a New Year’s hangover). I’ve had mixed feelings when it comes to McEwan. I almost always like his ideas, but sometimes find his novels to be populated with insufferable characters.
This story is mainly set on one evening in July 1962. Edward and Florence are newly married, arrived at a hotel overlooking Chesil Beach in Dorset following their wedding earlier that day. Both of them are virgins but where Edward has spent much of their year long courtship desperate to take things further, Florence is terrified of what their wedding night holds in store. She finds herself repulsed by the very idea of sex but hasn’t said anything to Edward because she loves him and would rather suffer through the act than upset him. As they eat dinner in their honeymoon suite, we see their thoughts as nerves begin to intensify; Edward’s full of growing excitement, Florence full of growing terror.
Amidst the awkwardness of their dinner is interspersed the backstory of how Edward and Florence met, their respective family life and the successes and failures of their courtship so far. Edward knows from past experience that Florence has shied away from physical contact and is worried that things might go awry. McEwan shows us both points of view, so we see their first meeting from both perspectives and their individual thoughts on Florence’s fear of physical intimacy (though Edward doesn’t realise the extent of it).
The skill here is in showing us their misunderstandings. So when Florence pulls away from Edward’s kiss because she can’t stand his tongue in her mouth any longer, the only distraction she can come up with is to take his hand and lead him towards the bedroom. Of course, Edward is thrilled to think that she is keen to go to bed with him, not knowing that she is already regretting not being able to voice her concerns.
Like several of McEwan’s novels, this one hinges upon one event that has long lasting repercussions. As a short novel this works well and there was just enough of a backstory to make me believe in the love of these two people who at times feel still to be strangers to one another. We are shown the couple’s development and growing love, the responses to certain past events, and the fact that it is 1962 – attitudes to sex were different, although Florence acknowledges that her fears are extreme. A minor complaint is that the aftermath seems to mainly be told from Edward’s point of view and I missed Florence’s take. I do understand why this was done but it didn’t stop me wanting to know! This isn’t my favourite McEwan but it is an accomplished piece of writing that drew me in and made me care about the characters.