Ian McEwan has a unique ability to make me love his books, despite making me feel so terribly sad. On Chesil Beach is the story of one young couple’s ill-fated wedding night. The book opens as Florence and Edward are enjoying a private dinner in their honeymoon suite:
They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy. They were sitting down to supper in a tiny sitting room on the first floor of a Georgian inn. In the next room, visible through the open door, was a four-poster bed, rather narrow, whose bedcover was pure white and stretched startlingly smooth, as though by no human hand. (p. 1)
Florence was scared to death, ill-informed, and disgusted by the few facts she knew about impending events. Edward was filled with desire, but also with intense fear of failure. The first chapter (33 pages) builds tension up to the point that Florence and Edward make their way towards that four-poster.
McEwan then leaves Edward and Florence in a state of suspended animation, and takes the reader back in time to understand how they met, their family histories, and their relationship. Florence is a violinist in a string quartet, and the daughter of a wealthy businessman. Edward was from more humble stock, but well-educated, and while he did not particularly appreciate classical music, he was very supportive of Florence. He also dutifully accepted employment with Florence’s father, even though it was far removed from his field of expertise.
Back to the bedroom, where you can cut the tension with a knife. You just know things aren’t going to go well for this couple, and their complete inability to communicate just takes things from bad to worse. It’s not just that they can’t talk about sex, it seems they can’t talk about anything important. Their responses are all too human, but as McEwan shows, small acts of anger have lasting consequences.
At just over 15o pages, On Chesil Beach was a very quick read, but Ian McEwan is such a master at both characterization and drama that the book had enormous emotional impact.