On Chesil Beach is a short novel about Edward and Florence, two newlyweds who experience destructive/disastrous sexual dysfunction on their wedding night. The majority of the novel takes place over a two hour period, and McEwan writes about the events of their wedding night in agonizingly minute detail. The novel is tight and concise, but McEwan develops the couple’s story via some of the most lyrical sentences I have ever read.
On Chesil Beach was not a pleasant book. It was one of the most uncomfortable books I have ever read. McEwan forces the reader to experiences the same level of discomfort and anxiety that Florence and Edward feel. While the reading experience was not enjoyable, I really appreciated the way that McEwan can make the readers emotionally and physically identify with the characters. McEwan’s books may not be for everyone, but he has undeniable talent and skill.
Although the characters of Edward and Florence are fully developed in their own right, they are symbolic of all young people of the time period. British society during the late 1950s-early 1960s was a time of sexual repression. Both Edward and Florence knew almost nothing about sex, but were expected to be able to successfully consummate their marriage. Edward was expected to be “experienced,” while Florence was expected to be “pure” (and somehow still be able to satisfy her new husband?). The novel is as much a critique of the destructive social conventions of the time as it is a study of interpersonal relationships and character development.
On Chesil Beach is a brilliant novel, but it is also a novel I doubt I will ever want to experience again. This was my first encounter with McEwan (and I have heard that many of his novels are like this), and I plan to read more of his work soon.