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On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan is a good, deftly written short novel about a young couple--Edward and Florence--whose marriage fails on their wedding night because Florence is terrified of sex and Edward hardens himself against her rather than seeking to understand her.

 

The setting is 1960, England/London/Oxford, just before the sexual revolution, perhaps the last moment possible for two virgins to face that fateful night in bed alone.  It didn't have to be that way, of course, but Florence has known all along that sex repels her (she profers playing the vioilin) and Edward, an honors graduate in history, has not understood her squeamishness and avoidence tactics during  their courtship.

 

The narrative focus initially is quite tight: dinner in the inn, the bedroom waiting.  Then it expands in alternating chapters to develop Florence and Edward's backstories.  There is a hint that Florence was abused by her father when she was a girl, but if she doesn't quite know it (having blocked the exprience to a degree), it's not clear to me the reader should know it.  I'd guess it probably happened, but neither the events nor the father is fully developed.

 

Of course that would explain a lot, but in the final battle, "frigidity" presents itself.  That seems to be Edward's conclusion, at least, and Florence appears resigned to live with it, too.

 

That final battle is a good one, full of the accusations, hopes for reconciliation, critical moments when things could go either way, and self-disgust that generally goes into fights between the sexes.

 

At certain points I thought, in fact, that fighting would wake these two up.  Edward isn't much more experienced than Florence and could certainly use a good shaking.  But he doesn't realize that until, in the final passages, the narrative sweeps him forward through the 60's and he has a sad look back at an opportunity--many opportunities--annulled.

 

The sweeping wrap-up may be this novel's one aesthetic mistake.  The battle on the beach almost reads as untethered and real as D.H. Lawrence, but then we go into Edward did this, and Edward did that, and years passed.  This more or less lets the air out of the final pages. Edward goes from an overwrought, deeply in love and deeply abused suitor to a guy who, like many guys, bedded women with ease in the following years. As such he's not nearly as interesting as when he was younger, more hopeful, more committed, and more vulnerable.

 

For more of my comments on contemporary fiction, see Tuppence Reviews (Kindle).