On Chesil Beach is a lovely little book that provides a perfect snapshot of a young British couple in the summer of 1962.
This book will have readers ask the question, “Could I ever have been (or could I ever be) that young?”
No matter what we try to tell ourselves, the answer is always “yes.” We would like to think ourselves more mature and sophisticated that that, but that’s like thinking we really do sound like Aretha Franklin in the shower. Ian McEwan presents these characters with such honesty and clarity, we readers will recognize how such a story can take place.
The short, poignant novel is a story about Florence and Edward, both 22-year-old Brits, who marry in 1962. Florence and Edward have lived in their family homes all their lives and experienced the intimacy and inner workings of their families, but they really don’t know how husbands and wives work together. As Charlie Rich crooned, no one knows what goes on behind closed doors — much to the dismay of those who have to walk behind them for the first time.
The tapestry of story is beautiful and compact as it weaves between the immediate present, as the two literally approach the marriage bed on their wedding night, and the experiences that had brought them to that point. They are told from the perspectives of Florence and Edward, and McEwan moves seamlessly between their thoughts.
Reading their story 45 years hence, a reader can appreciate the mores of the time and how (or whether) times have changed since. To date, Florence hadn’t given Edward more than a longing look; once he tried to advance to second base and was soundly thwarted. He laments that it took him weeks to regain ground with Florence, but that is what one expected of a respectable girl.
Now, though, the vicar gave them permission to share their bodies with each other, and McEwan allows readers into the minds of Florence and Edward, which ring with great clarity and honesty.
It is clear why Edward wants and expects his bride to respond to his advances, and his interpretations of her actions are completely understandable and truly heartbreaking.
It is also clear why Florence reacts as she does as she tries to approach her marital duties, and readers can truly sympathize with her bravery in the face of her fear: in the span of a 20-minute church ceremony, she is expected to go from virgin to sexual being without preparation of body or mind.
The true beauty of the compact novel is in its unfolding of the story. Whether you like the story’s resolution, you will be glad you read it. I highly recommend this book.