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On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

November 23, 2009


This is the story of a moment in time, a few hours really, and its consequences. The story takes place on the wedding night of a young couple, Florence and Edward. They are staying at a small hotel on Chesil Beach, and when the time comes to consummate the marriage, well, let’s just say there is a misunderstanding. This is prudish, pre-sexual-revolution Britain, the incident is blown out of proportion, and the fears and frustrations of Edward and Florence, the same fears and frustrations of any young couple just married, manifest themselves in a pointless and stubborn argument.

I have mixed feelings about this book. Most of it, the part that leads up to and surrounds the incident itself, I found quite boring. McEwan’s writing is solid, but the Victorian sensibility of it all just isn’t my thing. But the last part of the book, when Edward is looking back on the incident many years later and thinking about how that one small moment had such a large impact on his life—that part’s really moving and relatable and masterfully executed. And it made the rest of the book worth it.

On Chesil Beach is the first McEwan I’ve read, but from what I’ve heard, it deals with a favorite topic of his—how small events, even the ones that don’t feel like events at the time, can change everything. It’s little more than a short story, really, which is the perfect length for it. If the upfront required much more investment, I’m not sure I would recommend this book. But as it is, I found it to be a quick and powerful read.

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