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On Chesil Beach Paperback – June 10, 2008

3.8 out of 5 stars 406 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Such is Ian McEwan's genius that, despite rambling nature walks and the naming of birds, his subject matter remains hermetically sealed in the hearts of two people.

It is 1962 when Edward and Florence, 23 and 22 respectively, marry and repair to a hotel on the Dorset coast for their honeymoon. They are both virgins, both apprehensive about what's next and in Florence's case, utterly and blindly terrified and repelled by the little she knows. Through a tense dinner in their room, because Florence has decided that the weather is not fine enough to dine on the terrace, they are attended by two local boys acting as waiters. The cameo appearances of the boys and Edward and Florence's parents and siblings serve only to underline the emotional isolation of the two principals. Florence says of herself: "...she lacked some simple mental trick that everyone else had, a mechanism so ordinary that no one ever mentioned it, an immediate sensual connection to people and events, and to her own needs and desires...."

They are on the cusp of a rather ordinary marital undertaking in differing states of readiness, willingness and ardor. McEwan says: "Where he merely suffered conventional first-night nerves, she experienced a visceral dread, a helpless disgust as palpable as seasickness." Edward, having denied himself even the release of self-pleasuring for a week, in order to be tip-top for Florence, is mentally pawing the ground. His sensitivity keeps him from being obvious, but he is getting anxious. Florence, on the other hand, knows that she is not capable of the kind of arousal that will make any of this easy. She has held Edward off for a year, and now the reckoning is upon her.

McEwan is the master of the defining moment, that place and time when, once it has taken place, nothing will ever be the same after it. It does not go well and Florence flees the room. "As she understood it, there were no words to name what had happened, there existed no shared language in which two sane adults could describe such events to each other." Edward eventually follows her and they have a poignant and painful conversation where accusations are made, ugly things are said and roads are taken from which, in the case of these two, the way back cannot be found. Late in Edward's life he realizes: "Love and patience--if only he had them both at once--would surely have seen them both through." This beautifully told sad story could have been conceived and written only by Ian McEwan. --Valerie Ryan --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Not quite novel or novella, McEwan's masterful 13th work of fiction most resembles a five-part classical drama rendered in prose. It opens on the anxious Dorset Coast wedding suite dinner of Edward Mayhew and the former Florence Ponting, married in the summer of 1963 at 23 and 22 respectively; the looming dramatic crisis is the marriage's impending consummation, or lack of it. Edward is a rough-hewn but sweet student of history, son of an Oxfordshire primary school headmaster and a mother who was brain damaged in an accident when Edward was five. Florence, daughter of a businessman and (a rarity then) a female Oxford philosophy professor, is intense but warm and has founded a string quartet. Their fears about sex and their inability to discuss them form the story's center. At the book's midpoint, McEwan (Atonement, etc.) goes into forensic detail about their naïve and disastrous efforts on the marriage bed, and the final chapter presents the couple's explosive postcoital confrontation on Chesil Beach. Staying very close to this marital trauma and the circumstances surrounding it (particularly class), McEwan's flawless omniscient narration has a curious (and not unpleasantly condescending) fable-like quality, as if an older self were simultaneously disavowing and affirming a younger. The story itself isn't arresting, but the narrator's journey through it is. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; Reprint edition (June 10, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307386171
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307386175
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (406 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #93,676 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Roger Brunyate TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 15, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A brilliant book, but such a sad one; it would be unfair not to say so up front. Ian McEwan is a master at dissecting emotions. Every page of this wonderfully-crafted novel gave me the uncanny feeling of living within the skins of the two main characters, Edward and Florence, just married as the book opens. When they fall in love, nurture ambitions, experience happiness, I feel these things too. But when happiness eludes them, the pain is unbearable, not least because the author never lets us forget by how small a margin their happiness was missed.

In his last major novel, SATURDAY, McEwan pulled back from the multi-decade scope of ATONEMENT its predecessor, choosing to confine himself to the events of a single day. Here, the essential action occupies a mere three hours, described in a book which is itself unusually compact, a mere novella of only 200 delicate pages. In an opening that is surely a homage to Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach," the new husband and wife sit in a hotel room within sound of the sea on England's South coast. They eat a mediocre meal in one room; in the next, their bed stands waiting. They love each other, there is never any doubt about that, but they are inexperienced and secretly afraid. The book tells how they came to that moment, and what becomes of their love and fears as they move from one room into the other.

I have not known McEwan to write before in such detail about sex, but his writing is never prurient. Every detail serves to illustrate the psychological intercourse between these two talented and caring young people.
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Format: Hardcover
Nowadays, in premarital relationships, sexual compatibility is something that most couples do not wait too long to find out about. Typically, we're getting to this part quicker and quicker it seems, and I would venture to say that this is an area fraught with less mutual confusion than say for instance, the depth of true "love" between the two people. Compatibility in other realms taking a [shall we say] front seat while the people themselves are [ahem] in the back one!
In other words, [generally speaking now], courtship includes sexship!
Yeah! Well!
? Meet Edward and Florence.

We are told in the very first sentence [the author does not court his reader long]... They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.
When was this time?
Pre-sexual-revolution England.

Thing is, Edward and Florence are in love. They've got that part of things in order.
They're 22 years old. They've got the world by the tail.
Florence, daughter of wealthy parents, has her musical interests.
Edward loves history, and dreams of being a writer.
McEwan paints a rather idyllic sort of atmosphere surrounding the couple, Edward becoming increasingly involved with the Ponting family, even moving into their villa just off the Banbury Road. He plays regular tennis with Geoffrey, the future father-in-law, and lands a job working in the family business.
What could be wrong in this picture?

Well, in the midst of all of this splendor and promise, there are things that both of these youngsters avoid confronting, on a communicative level.
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Format: Hardcover
If you are easily seduced by beautiful sentences, you'll feel On Chesil Beach is a five-star book. If you love exploring inner dialogue, you'll be even more pleased with this book.

If, however, you like your stories to be compelling because of their relevance and interest to your own life, you'll wonder why in the world Mr. McEwan chose to write about this particular problem of poor communications in the context of 1962. As you delve deeper into the book, you'll be even more puzzled by the book's pivotal event and the characters' reactions to it.

The short book (neither novella nor full novel) is organized in five parts that seem much like the acts in a Greek tragedy. The opening scene shows a couple dining in their room at an inn. "They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible." The second act describes how they met. The third act takes place in their bedroom in the inn. The fourth act describes their courtship. The fifth act takes place on the beach and in their lives afterward as they attempt and fail to communicate.

Mr. McEwan does a good job of capturing your attention through exploring the couple's growing tension as they move toward the consummation of their marriage. But past that point, the story seemed like a punctured balloon to me: My interest was gone. I suspect that reaction is because I didn't feel close to either character; they are more there to entertain me than to lead me into experiencing the story like the characters do.

Clearly, the story would have worked much better for me if focused around a more universal trial in marriage, such as handling both sets of parents during the birth of a first child.
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