Saturday, June 30, 2007

On Chesil Beach

This is my third Ian McEwan novel, after Atonement and Saturday. I know it's hardly an original observation, but he can sure put a sentence together. The amount of detail he crams into each scene is remarkable in that it never, or rarely anyway, seems tedious or extraneous but adds to the atmosphere and characterization. Like Saturday, which takes place in one 24 hour span, On Chesil Beach unfolds mostly over one fateful evening, the wedding night of Florence and Edward. It is 1963, and both partners come to the marriage inexperienced and somewhat naive. Edward looks forward to the consummation of their marriage with desire and nervousness; Florence, on the other hand, is filled with complete dread. When events take a disastrous turn, they both lack the confidence, vocabulary, and self-awareness to handle the aftermath. While sex and the cultural and gender attitudes about it at the time are the central theme of the novel, I was also drawn to its portrayal of communication. More awkward than Edward and Florence's attempt at sex is their attempt to talk about it and the same patterns are mirrored in their conversation. McEwan perfectly describes how saying nothing, or the wrong thing, or the right thing imperfectly can turn things on a course that was never intended. While not quite up to par for me as his previous novels, at 200 pages reading On Chesil Beach is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

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