Wednesday, April 1, 2009

On Chesil Beach By Ian McEwan

So, here's this book I've been waiting and waiting to review. It's not that I didn't like it. I did. It's that everybody read and/or reviewed it pretty much already, and I'm not sure I have anything meaningful to add to the discourse. I'm sure I didn't exactly get all the cool literary things McEwan did with it, and I'm sure he probably did buckets of said cool literary things. I'm also sure that I don't quite understand all the societal forces in play in this tiny slip of a novel, all of which means I won't be able to offer you the wide-ranging, deeply perceptive big picture primo lit crit you are accustomed to seeing here on Leafing Through Life. Ahem, stop laughing. Anyhow, as you can see, of course, I am merely hedging to avoid starting the review, and I simply should not hedge anymore given the strikingly few books I am managing to get reviewed of late (Ultimate Bad Book Blogger 2009 trophy, I'm still coming for you!). And this is one of my Dewey Challenge books so I really need to just get this done. Really. Like, right now.

On Chesil Beach is the story of Edward and Florence on their wedding night. The novel follows as the couple blunders through the first few hours of their wedded life, one excited and the other horribly repulsed by the idea of what's immediately to come. As the newlywed couple draws ever nearer to consummating their union, they discover that they are ill-prepared in their naivete and lack of true knowledge of each other not only for this, their wedding night, but also for their entire future together.

Using the lengthy uncomfortable moments between the marriage and the doing of the deed, McEwan expertly weaves together the couple's past and their present. In just over two hundred pages he chronicles their first meeting, their falling into sweet, if ultimately superficial love for each other, and the unfortunate consequences of an evening that could have ended very differently. Even as the two contemplate their pasts and futures, their conflicting feelings about the moment at hand are ever present in McEwan's narrative.

On Chesil Beach is a very big book in scope that is, physically, quite small. It is a book in which very little actually happens, and much to McEwan's credit, it's very unlikely that most readers will notice the lack of action. In fact, On Chesil Beach hums along at a pace that never feels laborious which seems to be ever a danger in books such as this. McEwan has created a tightly written and stunningly realistic portrait of an innocent couple on their wedding night, showing us two people who barely know themselves attempting to become one. Beautifully wrought description, imagery, and characterization bring both the wedding night and the retrospective scenes of the beginnings of Edward and Florence's relationship to life in all their minute intricacies. Using his newlyweds who seem to be virtual strangers even on their wedding night, McEwan beautifully brings home the point that we can never really know another person completely, and maybe love isn't quite all you need when it comes to sustaining a relationship.


  1. As far as I can remember this is the first review I've read of On Chesil Beach. It sounds great!

  2. Oh crap, Megan, did you really have to do this. See, I've been successfully avoiding McEwan for ages. Because of all those cool literary things you alluded to. Knowing that I don't "get" cool literary things all that well, I figured I needn't bother with him, figured he was better left to the big kids. But now you just had to go and make this sound good. Sound like something I might just enjoy. That really wasn't nice, you know.

  3. I love this review! I read this awhile ago (do you want my review link? I'll come back if you do - it's NOT as good as this!) I have a bit of a crush on McEwan's writing; I loved how UNCOMFORTABLE I was reading this yet so eager to know how it all turns out.

  4. I'm just back to say I didn't really review this book so no need to go look for one on my blog! But Lightheaded's review is good. :)

  5. It's interesting that you were worried about literary bits: I don't usually think of McEwan as that kind of writer... Still, I like your description of how the book manages to progress with little plot to carry it. It sounds like a worthwhile character-driven book.

  6. I think I might have to give this a shot. I tried reading McEwan's "Saturday" and just couldn't get into it at all.

    Thanks for the review!

  7. As hard as this was for you to start writing, you did a wonderful job, Megan. I haven't yet read this one, but I definitely want to. I really liked McEwan's writing in Atonement and am anxious to try some of his other books.

  8. I'm so sorry I haven't been around your blog for a long time. I haven't been blogging much myself, but I just wanted to drop by and say hi, wish you a good weekend and a nice Easter (if you celebrate that) and apologize for being scarce.

    I am finishing my Master thesis and this takes up most of my time. Hopefully, by the end of May, I will be able to blog more and participate more around the blogosphere.

    I am still reviewing books from time to time on my blog, but I am not really active.

    I don't expect you to come running visiting and commenting, I just wanted to let you know that I am very much alive and I miss reading and commenting on your blog very much.

    This is a personal message written to all the blogowner, whose delightful blogs I visit on a regular basis, but it has been copy/pasted. So if you find it on other blogger's blogs, that is why.

    I look very much forward to be active again - and apologize once again for not being active the past month and not being able to be active for another month or two.


  9. I didn't mind this but I wasn't blown away by it either.

    Here's my cheats review!

  10. Bermuda - wow, I'm sort of honored to be your first. Okay, that just sounds weird. ;-)

    Debi - Muah! I have worked my evil spell on you! Despite the cool literary things passing me by, I did enjoy it, and hey, it's short. At least I'm not making some massive tome sound impossibly alluring, right? ;-)

    Care, this was my very first McEwan, though a few more teeter on Mt. TBR. Given the excellence of this one, I'm definitely looking forward reading some more of his soon. And it *is* just deliciously uncomfortable, isn't it?

    AC - He can be, but he apparently doesn't *have* to be that kind of writer. I saw some pretty extensive unpacking of this novel even among the LibraryThing reviews which made me, again, feel like I was missing significant nuance, but the good news is, even without all that, his writing is quite enjoyable!

    saveophelia - hope you do give it a shot, and you're quite welcome! =)

    Thanks, LF. I was actually lying in bed trying to force myself to cook up a plot summary which always gets me rolling on the review. And it worked! I've got lots more McEwan on my TBR pile that I'm eager to get to now.

    Lou, I haven't been too terribly active in my blogging lately either. Good luck with that thesis, Happy Easter, and look forward to seeing you around some more soon! =)

    Marg - Yeah, I liked this, but it probably won't go down as one of my favorites for the year. Thanks for the link, I'll post it today!

  11. Thank you very much for this review - I'm persuaded that I *should* read this book after holding out against it for a long time.

  12. This is a great review! I didn't "enjoy" the book (because it's kidn of painful to read) but I really appreciated it. It's beautifully written.

  13. I haven't yet read *anything* by Ian McEwan!

    I may add this to my list for Dewey's Books challenge; so far I have read only one ...

    I don't mind doing battle with the clever literary things; some I'll "get", others not so much!