Good Reads: On Chesil Beach
November 27, 2008
“Most mothers think that to keep young people away from lovemaking it is enough never to speak of it in their presence.”
– Marie Madeleine de la Fayette
The Princesse de Cleves, 1678
Author Ian McEwan, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, the W. C. Smith Literary Award and the Booker Prize Award for his insightful, haunting, and beautifully written novels (such as “Atonement,” “Saturday,” and “Amsterdam”) offered yet another gem in Spring 2007.
His latest novel, “On Chesil Beach,” which was short-listed for the 2007 Man Booker Prize, is only 166 pages and is set in a hotel in Dorset where we are witness to the disastrous wedding night of two young virgins, Edward Mahew and Florence Ponting, married earlier that morning. The date is important ” July 1962 ” a time of social restriction, when sex was not as freely spoken about or openly embraced.
Neither Edward nor Florence are sexually practiced, and Florence, a concert violinist, is actually terrified of sex and resents Edward’s constant attempts to push the sexual boundaries. She loves him. She wants to please him. He loves her. He does not want to perform badly. Without a word spoken, the outcome of the events that evening forever changes the course of their lives.
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This outcome is only reached in the book after wonderfully composed interwoven accounts of their family backgrounds, their relationships, their interests. Resting rather significantly in Edward’s history is the fact that he used to like a bit of roughhousing on a Saturday night until he went to London University and discovered that sort of thing was not considered acceptable. He is an intelligent lower-middle-class boy with a brain-damaged mother and a schoolmaster father from an Oxfordshire village, who falls in love with the beautiful musician daughter of a successful Oxford family: Mother is a philosopher academic, and father is a manufacturer. Florence is very invested in her music and dedicated to the future of the classical quartet to which she belongs.
McEwan has always been interested in class in his novels, but the class difference here is not a major theme, just merely a kind of white noise. The two households, the chaotic Mahews, living in near squalor with the secret of the mother’s brain damage and the aesthetically more advanced, but emotionally more retarded, Pontings, are contrasted subtly and economically to create a familiar McEwan sense of unease. If you have read other McEwan novels, you will be aware that ‘unease’ is a perennial McEwan theme. In “On Chesil Beach,” however, the unease is mostly sexual. The young couple is hopelessly mismatched.
This is a fine book. McEwan has become an even better, more generous, more human writer with each book he pens. The book is also available on audio disc, read by the author, with a wonderfully insightful interview which follows the reading.
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Adults (fiction): “Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and his Brothers in the Civil War” by Robert Roper
Young Adult (ages 13-17): “Paper Towns” by John Green
Juvenile (fourth through sixth grade): “The Last Invisible Boy” by Evan Kuhlman
Children (second through third grade): “The Runaway Dolls” by Ann M. Martin and Laura Godwin
Books for Book Groups: “Annette Vallon” by James Tipton
Nov. 28: William Blake (1757), Rita Mae Brown (1944), Jon Stewart
Nov. 29: Louisa May Alcott (1832), Madeline L’Engle (1918), C. S. Lewis (1898)
Nov. 30: Jonathon Swift (1835), Mark Twain (1835), Winston Churchill
Dec. 1: Rex Stout (1886)
Dec. 2: Elizabeth Berg (1948), T. C. Boyle (1948), Nikos Kazantzakis (1885)
Dec. 3: Joseph Conrad (1857), Morgan Llywelyn (1937)
Dec. 4: Rainer Maria Rilke (1875), Plum Sykes (1969)