book review: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

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ON CHESIL BEACH by Ian McEwan
★★★★★
Jonathan Cape, 2007

What a quietly stunning little book. I didn’t know what to expect from On Chesil Beach, having only read and been somewhat underwhelmed by Atonement about a decade ago, but I have now officially been converted to the church of Ian McEwan. I could not believe the emotional torment he managed to put me through in the space of 200 bite-sized pages.

On Chesil Beach is an almost-love story about Florence and Edward, two young lovers on their honeymoon on the coast of England in 1962. What should be a romantic weekend quickly devolves into something much sadder as an ocean of miscommunications piles up between the two characters. Florence is asexual, though the term asexual is never used because of the time period, and the lack of access to this concept and vocabulary has led Florence to believe that she’s fundamentally broken. As she’s unable to communicate this feeling to Edward, he imbues her actions with false meanings, drawing from his understanding of social conventions to fill in the blanks – she’s shaking because she’s terrified and repulsed and ashamed, but Edward assumes she’s shaking because she’s nervous and excited, because don’t all young women act demure to mask a secret sensuality? There is no precedent for Florence falling outside this expected norm.

McEwan also ties in Florence and Edward’s story to the shifting social attitudes of the time – they’re living in a Britain which hasn’t quite normalized sexuality and celebrated youthful freedom. The two are inexperienced and unable to communicate their thoughts and feelings and desires and expectations to one another, because how do you even start a conversation about sex when it just feels like this abstract concept both to be revered and ashamed of?

I wasn’t prepared for how expansive this book was going to be – McEwan dexterously explores themes of class differences, propriety, love and sex and sexuality, all in economical prose that says so much in a book whose conflict ironically hinges on a lack of articulation on the part of both characters. And above all else this book is just bitterly sad. The final pages are like an emotional gut-punch. If McEwan managed all this in 200 pages, I can’t wait to see what he’s done in his other novels.

30 thoughts on “book review: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

  1. I’ve read a few Ian McEwan books, and should probably read some more from the sound of this! Whenever I hear someone talk about his books, I’m always amazed at how utterly different they all seem to be from each other. He’s not a writer ruled by genre, that’s for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ooh have you read any you’d recommend? I’ve got no clue what to read next. And yes, very true, I always love when authors write across different genres, even though some books will inevitably work better for you than others it’s still more exciting than reading variations of the same book over and over.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I totally agree!

        The Children Act didn’t do too much for me, but I really enjoyed Nutshell, and The Cement Garden has really stayed with me (I read it like 7+ years ago and still remember how unnerving it was).

        Liked by 1 person

      • I haven’t even heard of The Cement Garden but you had me at unnerving! And I’ve been curious about Nutshell, it is just such a strange premise but I’ve heard very good things. And I should probably give Atonement another try – my not so sophisticated hot take on that book when I was 16 was ‘the war parts are boring’ 🤦🏻‍♀️

        Liked by 1 person

      • It’s about a group of siblings trying to cover up the fact their mother has died so they can stay together and avoid being taken in to care. It gets very dark.

        😂 Don’t worry, I haven’t read Atonement, or seen the movie, so your take is more informed than mine!

        Liked by 1 person

      • That sounds sufficiently dark and disturbing, I want in.

        I do like the movie a lot! But how much of that is the actual film quality and how much is just Keira Knightley’s iconic green dress, it’s hard to say 🤷🏻‍♀️

        Liked by 1 person

      • “On Chesil Beach” was my first book by McEwan, and my second was “The Cement Garden,” which I tentatively recommend but only if you have a strong stomach (warning: it involves incest between teenagers.)

        Liked by 1 person

    • I hope you love it!!!

      I do plan on watching the movie! That’s why I decided to read the book in the first place, but now I’m much less excited for the movie because the book is so introspective and I don’t see how this story is going to translate to film very well… but I adore Saoirse Ronan and I watch all of her movies so I’ll still check it out!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I never made it through Atonement. I tried to read it in my first year at uni and just couldn’t (lots of other stuff on my mind then). But this one sounds really intriguing! And I do love short books that pack a punch.
    Plus, the movie looks stunning.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was so bored by Atonement… but also I was 16 and hardly the discerning reader I am now so I feel like it didn’t really get a fair chance from me. Anyway you must read this!!! It surpassed all of my expectations.

      I was so looking forward to the movie since I adore Saoirse Ronan but now I’m a little more apprehensive because this book is SO introspective and I just cannot imagine how this is going to translate to film. But I’ll probably still see it this weekend. I’ll report back!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You had me at ’emotional torment’! This definitely sounds like something I would appreciate, so adding to my TBR.

    I’ve only ever read one of McEwan’s books before (Amsterdam) for a class in university. I literally don’t remember a single thing about it so obviously it didn’t make much of an impression, but it sounds like I should check out some of his other novels.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would highly recommend it to you!!! I think you’ll particularly appreciate the depiction of asexuality.

      I’ve heard mixed things about Amsterdam but I definitely want to check it out especially as I am making more of an effort to read past Man Booker winners. But I’d love to check out his other novels as well.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I have not read this book but my wife raves about it. It is a pity, that the film is so disappointing. I could only give it three stars out of five, for reasons I set out im my review. If anyone esle has seen the film and would like to share more positive thougths, I’d love to hear from them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hope you enjoy the book if you decide to read it! It’s really excellent. But that’s too bad the film wasn’t great. I keep hearing mediocre things about it. I still want to get around to it at some point but much less enthusiastically now.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I liked the film! I think it’s a very faithful adaptation, although maybe less ambivalent at the end because it’s less obvious that Briony is trying very hard to justify herself. But I really think if you liked the book you will probably like the film as well

        Like

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