Unlike the female protagonist of McEwan’s novel, On Chesil Beach I am not a virgin when it comes to McEwan’s work. This is the sixth book I’ve read by this author (Saturday, First Love, Last Rites, The Comfort of Strangers, The Cement Garden, Atonement), but I’d have to say it’s my least favourite.
Like his novel Saturday, McEwan compresses time and shows us Edward and Florence, a young couple dining together in a hotel on Chesil Beach on the evening of their wedding. They haven’t yet consummated their union and they are both approaching the idea of the event-to-come from vastly different vantage points. Florence is horrified at the thought of sex and Edward is both patient and anxious.
McEwan fills in the blanks in their personal stories as well as their history as a couple and does it well enough that you come to understand Edward and Florence very well. Whether or not you have any sympathy for them will depend on your patience.
As inexperienced as Florence is, I was left with the distinctly uneasy impression that her aversion to sex (and she really is repulsed by it: her description of a kiss made me reconsider kissing my husband ever again!) was the result of some traumatic event- although nothing is ever explicitly stated. Edward’s own inexperience has its own unfortunate consequences and the repercussions are devastating.
But then McEwan does something I sort of hate in a novel- he flash forwards a few years and then many years and tells us what these people have been up to. That sort of ending never works for me.
No question, McEwan is a fabulous writer. This same story, in lesser hands, would be unbearable. As it was, I felt like I was laughing where I shouldn’t be and the climax, no pun intended, was a rather soggy affair.