Tuesday, January 15, 2013

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Monday, February 11, 2013

At 1:00 PM

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Discussion Leader:  Ellen Getreu

On their wedding day, a young couple--Florence, daughter of an Oxford academic and a successful businessman, and Edward, an earnest history student with little experience of women--looks forward to the future while worrying about their upcoming wedding night.


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Booklist Reviews
/*Starred Review*/ In previous novels, McEwan has measured the effect of the cataclysmic moment on personal lives. And he has never shied away from full-tilt exploration of the tensions inherent in human sexuality. These two predilections merge, almost gently, in his new novella, which, despite its short length, is anything but small in its creative concept and the consequent poignancy it arouses in the reader. This achingly beautiful narrative, which seamlessly flows between the points of view of the two primary characters, peers behind closed doors, but never lasciviously, at a young married couple on their honeymoon night. The time is the brink of the 1960s, but the young couple's virginity, and their stiltedness in general and certainly with each other (McEwan makes certain to take several glances backward to fill in their separate biographical and psychological profiles), seems a remnant of Victorian times rather than anticipating the free and easy sexuality of the decade to come. The cataclysmic moment here is simply a case of premature ejaculation during the couple's first lovemaking; and from that incident, which under normal circumstances, with normally accepting and loving individuals, would have been a minor glitch in their marital history, immediately arises a deep misunderstanding that proves disastrous to the marriage. Conventional in construction and realistic in its representation of addled psychology, the novel is ingenious for its limited but deeply resonant focus. ((Reviewed March 15, 2007)) Copyright 2007 Booklist Reviews.
BookPage Reviews
McEwan explores the damage done by things left unsaidIn his last novel, Saturday, Booker Prize winner Ian McEwan confined his narrative to a single day, managing to convey a life—a lifetime even—within those limited boundaries. Always a master of concision, McEwan has pared down the parameters of story even further in his brief but incisive new work, On Chesil Beach.
The crucial action in On Chesil Beach takes place within just a few hours on the wedding night of a young English couple in 1962. The year is key, for though chronologically part of the decade, 1962 was, culturally, eons away from the "Swinging Sixties" that would usher in new freedoms and laissez-faire attitudes about sex just a few years later. Newlyweds Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting, not long out of university, are both still virgins on their wedding night, and the overlapping anticipation and anxiety of what they will encounter in the marriage bed provide the drama of the story. They live, we are told, in "a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible." So, as they eat their supper in the room of a Georgian inn on the Dorset coast, just a few hours after their marriage, Edward and Florence each think, but never speak, about what they hope will or will not soon transpire in the adjoining bedroom.
For Edward, it promises to be the fulfillment of his long endured abstinence. He loves Florence passionately and without equal, and believes he has been considerate, even noble, in not forcing the physical element of their relationship before their marriage vows. Florence loves Edward with equal ardor, but she plainly fears whatever she is going to encounter, and the information that she has obtained from "a modern, forward-looking handbook that was supposed to be helpful to young brides, with its cheery tones and exclamation marks and numbered illustrations" has only heightened her fears.
Their thoughts, and the narrative, flow freely in time, as each recalls the events that have brought them to this point. Edward, the son of the headmaster of a rural primary school south of Oxford, grew up in a loving home clouded by the presence of a brain-damaged mother. Florence's upper-middle-class North Oxford family was far more concerned with creature comforts and keeping up appearances. Florence has broken from convention by studying music. An outstanding violinist, her energies are focused on honing the abilities of her string quartet and advancing its success. Edward, with a first in history from London University, is somewhat adrift career-wise, until his future father-in-law offers him an entirely unsuitable job with the family firm. He can always write history books on the side, he reasons, with youthful optimism.
Both Florence and Edward are intelligent, agreeable people with progressive ideas (they meet at a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament gathering), ideally suited for each other in temperament and interests, which makes it all the more painful as we watch their future evaporate because of misunderstandings and unspoken sentiments. McEwan has a knack for getting beneath the skin of lovers, and because we, as readers, are privy to inner thoughts that Edward and Florence never convey—we come to know each better than they can ever know each other.
It is this frustrating disconnect that gives On Chesil Beach its cumulative, albeit quiet, power. Really no more than a novella, the book nonetheless has the wisdom and depth that characterize all of McEwan's work. As always, his prose is elegant and restrained, yet knowing in its subtle details. With efficiency, he captures the mood of Britain at a transitional time, with empire and influence waning and a new generation attempting to find its place. McEwan accomplishes much in a deceptively small story that purports to be simply about a few hours on a wedding night in a second-rate hotel overlooking the English Channel. Like Howard's End or The End of the Affair, On Chesil Beach is a haunting book about missed opportunities, misapprehensions and the irreparable damage done by things left unsaid.
Robert Weibezahl, author of the novel The Wicked and the Dead, is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Copyright 2007 BookPage Reviews.
Library Journal Reviews
Shy musician Florence and her fianc‚, earnest Edward, look forward to married life, but a momentary misunderstanding on their wedding night changes everything. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal Reviews
It is 1962, and college graduates Florence and Edward, very much children of late 1950s London, are ready to launch themselves as a couple. Musical Florence is hoping for a concert career and looking forward to the wedding she believes will truly define her adulthood. Edward, a budding historian from a troubled family, envisions lifelong domestic joy with his beautiful fiance. However, both are plagued by private anxieties they can't bring themselves to discuss. As Edward plans an idyllic beachside wedding night, he broods about overcoming Florence's physical shyness given his own sparse experience. He has no idea she is terrified of sex but has grimly resolved to do her submissive duty. The results are false assumptions, confusion, and a nightmarish (and graphically described) sexual disaster that destroys the marriage even before it starts. McEwan's (Saturday ) brief, affecting tale of romantic dreams overthrown by adherence to social constructs that are about to change radically is a strong effort from this Booker Prize winner. Recommended for most adult fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 2/1/07.]—Starr E. Smith, Fairfax Cty. P.L., VA
[Page 82]. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Publishers Weekly Reviews
Not quite novel or novella, McEwan's masterful 13th work of fiction most resembles a five-part classical drama rendered in prose. It opens on the anxious Dorset Coast wedding suite dinner of Edward Mayhew and the former Florence Ponting, married in the summer of 1963 at 23 and 22 respectively; the looming dramatic crisis is the marriage's impending consummation, or lack of it. Edward is a rough-hewn but sweet student of history, son of an Oxfordshire primary school headmaster and a mother who was brain damaged in an accident when Edward was five. Florence, daughter of a businessman and (a rarity then) a female Oxford philosophy professor, is intense but warm and has founded a string quartet. Their fears about sex and their inability to discuss them form the story's center. At the book's midpoint, McEwan (Atonement , etc.) goes into forensic detail about their nave and disastrous efforts on the marriage bed, and the final chapter presents the couple's explosive postcoital confrontation on Chesil Beach. Staying very close to this marital trauma and the circumstances surrounding it (particularly class), McEwan's flawless omniscient narration has a curious (and not unpleasantly condescending) fable-like quality, as if an older self were simultaneously disavowing and affirming a younger. The story itself isn't arresting, but the narrator's journey through it is. (June)
[Page 33]. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.

Read Jonathan Lethem's Review in The New York Times 

Read a review from The Guardian