Sunday, July 08, 2007

On Chesil Beach

On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan.
Nowadays, in premarital relationships, sexual compatibility is something that most couples do not wait too long to find out about. Typically, we’re getting to this part quicker and quicker it seems, and I would venture to say that this is an area fraught with less mutual confusion than say for instance, the depth of true “love” between the two people. Compatibility in other realms taking a [shall we say] front seat while the people themselves are [ahem] in the back one!
In other words, [generally speaking now], courtship includes sexship!
Yeah! Well!
→ Meet Edward and Florence.

We are told in the very first sentence [the author does not court his reader long]… They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.
When was this time?
Pre-sexual-revolution England.

Thing is, Edward and Florence are in love. They’ve got that part of things in order.
They’re 22 years old. They’ve got the world by the tail.

Florence, daughter of wealthy parents, has her musical interests.
Edward loves history, and dreams of being a writer.
McEwan paints a rather idyllic sort of atmosphere surrounding the couple, Edward becoming increasingly involved with the Ponting family, even moving into their villa just off the Banbury Road. He plays regular tennis with Geoffrey, the future father-in-law, and lands a job working in the family business.
What could be wrong in this picture?

Well, in the midst of all of this splendor and promise, there are things that both of these youngsters avoid confronting, on a communicative level.
Edward, well aware of his own sexual inexperience, is startled to find that even his slightest advances toward Florence are met with seemingly undue resistance. Yea, even revulsion.
Florence, we are told in one brief, almost hidden away sentence, thinks that Edward has been with many women, before her. This misinformation fuels her reticence and fear.
McEwan seems to suggest [albeit so subtly that the reader must guess at it] that Florence has experienced sexual abuse at the hands of her father in the past.
Point being that lack of communication, like termites, is eating away at what could be a perfectly good building.

And so here we are at The Wedding Night.

The real Chesil Beach, shown here.
We are on Chesil Beach, at this resort…. well, not us, but these two are there.
And McEwan writes so forcefully that we cannot help but become wicked voyeurs.
Yea, we lean in closer, to be sure we hear every word… see every eyelash flicker.
They are having a very lackluster, fear-fraught dinner.
And then the moment arrives.
The bed.
False signals are flying every which way, like penalty flags at a soccer match.
McEwan is all about moments. About antecedent causes, and how moments in time can change us forever.
Well, for those of us who appreciate this aspect of his work, [and I am one of them] he is not about to disappoint us here. Everything about this novella is compact and quick, and believe me, it comes to a ragingly lopsided climax now.
Quickly. No words wasted.
It is not spoiling anything here for me to say that the bed scene is an absolute disaster. An emotional armageddon.

But the true tragedy is yet to appear.
On Chesil Beach.

Not to over-moralize here, but the book made me ask myself a question.
At what point do we attend to the physical matters of relationship?
Is the correct answer to be only after the wedding day, as many religions [and presumably, “God”] would tell us? As Edward and Florence did?
Far be it from me to attempt an answer to that question that would suit all people.
But, this book surely provides one look at the devastation that can result from an unrealistic commitment to delayed gratification and lack of open communication.
Whatever else we want to think about sex, one thing that rings true in this book is that it is profoundly important.
And to think otherwise, and enter into marriage in a state of mutual sexual ignorance, can be life-threatening.

And yet, On Chesil Beach is not even about sex.
It’s about “love and patience” which, as Edward realizes on the last page, [and decades later] could have saved the day. Could have “seen them both through.”
We are given hints that Florence has learned the same thing, too.
Sometimes, [in fact, perhaps all the time] to do nothing, is to have done too much.
The armageddon of the bedroom scene was fixable.

What an amazing, amazing book!
Days later, I re-read the last 50 pages or so, aloud, to a friend, and even knowing it all ahead of time, had to stop several times. Couldn’t go on.
The last chapter, the fifth one, is among the most moving pieces of writing I have ever encountered.
On Chesil Beach is the eighth McEwan book I have read.
I’ve loved each one, but I think I like this one best.
So, in my opinion, Chesil Beach is five stars out of five!
It will become a beloved novel to everyone who will have, or is having, or has had a love relationship with another person. And you’ve gotta admit, that’s a huge audience.
Such is the appeal, of On Chesil Beach.





Beth said...

thanks for stopping by my blog...I went to a restaurant named Ciprianos once...really good food.

this book sounds good and I think I might just have to read it.

kimbofo said...

Wonderful review!

Matt said...

"premarital relationships, sexual compatibility is something that most couples do not wait too long to find out about."

Hmmm...if I recall correctly, that was how my parents were up to the point when they got married in 1972.

I take [sex] naturally--won't make a point to wait until a certain stage of relationship. I keep an open mind to it I guess.

Some people have to experience sex to see if there is chemistry. Others focus on the friendship. I see myself in the middle road. :)

Btw, (sorry I digress) going back to the novel--this one has been a hit recently. At least two bloggers on my blogroll have blogged about it. And so does the cute librarian on campus. Ha!

cipriano said...

Chesil is just such a terrific little short read.
I strongly encourage you all to try and get a hold of a copy, you'll love it.
Thank you all for your comments.
-- Cip

danielle said...

I'msaving your review for after I have read it. I'm looking forward to it greatly!

Beth said...

Great review.

And it is a fabulous book.

Merisi said...

I bought that book the moment it was available out our Vienna Shakespear & Co. I am a big Ian McEwan admirer (every sultry hot summer day, I think of "Atonement"), but haven't read the book yet, waiting for a moment in time when I can really savour it in one long read.
Knowing McEwan, I read you review, confident that even if you paraphrased the story, McEwan still would have me spellbound.
You have read "The Sea" by John Banville, have you? If not, I am sure you'll like it. ;-)