2008 Morning News Tournament of Books Nominee
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Synopses & Reviews
A novel of remarkable depth and poignancy from one of the most acclaimed writers of our time.
It is July 1962. Florence is a talented musician who dreams of a career on the concert stage and of the perfect life she will create with Edward, an earnest young history student at University College of London, who unexpectedly wooed and won her heart. Newly married that morning, both virgins, Edward and Florence arrive at a hotel on the Dorset coast. At dinner in their rooms they struggle to suppress their worries about the wedding night to come. Edward, eager for rapture, frets over Florence's response to his advances and nurses a private fear of failure, while Florence's anxieties run deeper: she is overcome by sheer disgust at the idea of physical contact, but dreads disappointing her husband when they finally lie down together in the honeymoon suite.
Ian McEwan has caught with understanding and compassion the innocence of Edward and Florence at a time when marriage was presumed to be the outward sign of maturity and independence. On Chesil Beach is another masterwork from McEwan a story of lives transformed by a gesture not made or a word not spoken.
"[An] achingly beautiful narrative....Conventional in construction and realistic in its representation of addled psychology, the novel is ingenious for its limited but deeply resonant focus." Booklist (Starred Review)
"Subtle, witty, rueful and sometimes heartrending, On Chesil Beach coalesces these perceptions into a novel that is a master feat of concentration in both senses of the word." Peter Kemp, The Sunday Times (London)
"McEwan brings Florence and Edward touchingly alive for us; and their seriousness, their idealism, and their desire for love draw us towards them." Natasha Walter, The Guardian
"After two big, ambitious novels...McEwan has inexplicably produced a small, sullen, unsatisfying story that possesses none of those earlier books' emotional wisdom, narrative scope or lovely specificity of detail....[A] smarmy portrait of two incomprehensible and unlikable people." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"A fine book, homing in with devastating precision on a kind of Englishness which McEwan understands better than any other living writer, the Englishness of deceit, evasion, repression and regret.... McEwan has combined the intensity of his narrowly focused early work with his more expansive later flowering to devastating effect." Justin Cartwright, The Independent (London)
"The story unfolds in a perfect manner, withholding now and then for effect, even omitting sometimes, with the result that On Chesil Beach is not only a wonderful read but also perhaps that rarest of things: a perfect novel." San Francisco Chronicle
"On Chesil Beach is more than an event. It is a masterpiece. The very idea that informs it, fascinating and unfamiliar, is masterly." Karl Miller, Times Literary Supplement
"[T]hough life is never easy, as the narrator reminds us, gorging ourselves on McEwan's impeccable prose is." Miami Herald
"If McEwan's first chapters generally ought to be sent, like Albert Pujols's bats, to the Hall of Fame, then we may agree that in this instance his first sentence is a first chapter of its own." Jonathan Lethem, New York Times
"McEwan's stories are introspective and, at times, told at a wondering distance....The most moving section of the book is the final, fifth section in which the future is revealed in its entire could-have, should-have splendor." Denver Post
"On Chesil Beach, a novella-length story, is a short, sad, slight book about anxiety, inexperience, hope and the triumph of failure. Vintage McEwan." Chicago Sun-Times
"[P]acks a pretty good wallop....Marvelously realized and treacherously conceived." Boston Globe
"McEwan's writing is as sharp, as darkly humorous, as psychologically penetrating as it's ever been." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"[R]eplete with pleasures: keen observations of family dynamics, of English life, of fortune's randomness." Los Angeles Times
"It's a bit voyeuristic. Borderline pervy. And if McEwan wasn't so good at building tension, it'd be incredibly dull....But coming off the heels of his highly praised and 'important' novels like Atonement
, On Chesil Beach
just feels light....Where are the big ideas? The literary ambition? Chalk it up as an amuse-bouche, a good summer read, before his next big one." Buddy Kite, Esquire
(read the entire Esquire review
A novel of remarkable depth and poignancy, McEwan has caught with understanding and compassion the innocence of a newly married couple both virgins in 1962, when marriage was presumed to be the outward sign of maturity and independence.
The year is 1962. Florence, the daughter of a successful businessman and an aloof Oxford academic, is a talented musician. She dreams of a career on the concert stage and of the perfect life she will create with Edward, the earnest young history student she met by chance and who unexpectedly wooed and won her heart. Edward grew up in the country on the outskirts of Oxford, where his father, the headmaster of the local school, struggled to keep the household together and his mother, brain-damaged in an accident, drifted in a world of her own. Edward's native intelligence, coupled with a longing to experience the excitement and intellectual fervor of the city, had taken him to University College in London. Falling in love with the accomplished, shy, and sensitive Florence and having his affections returned with equal intensity has utterly changed his life. Their marriage, they believe, will bring them happiness and the confidence to fulfill their true destinies. The glowing promise of the future, however, cannot totally mask their worries about the wedding night. Edward, who has had little experience with women, frets about his sexual prowess. Florence's anxieties run deeper: she is overcome by conflicting emotions and a fear of the moment she will surrender herself to her husband in their honeymoon suite.
From the precise and intimate depiction of two young lovers eager to rise above the hurts and confusion of the past, to the touching story of how their unexpressed misunderstandings and resentments shape the rest of their lives, On Chesil Beach is an extraordinary exploration of how the entire course of a life can be changed by a gesture not made or a word not spoken.
About the Author
Ian McEwan is the bestselling author of more than ten books, including the novels Saturday; Atonement, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the W. H. Smith Literary Award; The Comfort of Strangers and Black Dogs, both shortlisted for the Booker Prize; Amsterdam, winner of the Booker Prize; and The Child in Time, winner of the Whitbread Award, as well as the story collections First Love, Last Rites, winner of the Somerset Maugham Award, and In Between the Sheets. He lives in London.
Reading Group Guide
1. What do the novels opening lines tell us about Edward and Florence? How did your perceptions of them change throughout the subsequent pages? What details did you eventually know about them that they never fully revealed to one another?
2. Is Edwards libido truly the primary reason he proposes marriage, or were other factors involved (perhaps ones he did not even admit to himself)? Are relationships harmed or helped by cultural restrictions against sex before marriage? Would this marriage have taken place if the couple had met when birth-control pills were no longer just a rumor?
3. Edward replays the words “with my body I thee worship” in his mind. What might have been the intention in including that line when this version of the marriage ceremony was written? How does it make Edward feel?
4. Ian McEwan describes the novels time period as an era when youth was not glorified but adulthood was. We are also told that Edward was born in 1940, while his parents contemplated possible outcomes of the war with Germany. At what point did Edward and Florences solemnity become viewed as old-fashioned? What contributed to that shift? What are your recollections, or those shared by relatives who lived it, of the emerging youth culture of the late 1960s and 70s?
5. Were Florence and Edward incompatible in ways beyond sexual ones? What do their difficulties in bed say about their relationship altogether? Or is sex an isolated aspect of a marriage?
6. Chapter two describes how Florence and Edward met; the first paragraph tells us that they were too sophisticated to believe in destiny. How would you characterize the kind of love they developed? What made them believe they were perfect for one another? Are any two people perfect for one another?
7. What did Edwards decision to go to London for college indicate about his goals? What was Florences dream for her future? Was marriage a greater social necessity for her, as a woman? Would her career as a classical musician necessarily have been sacrificed if she had remained with Edward?
8. Compare Edwards upbringing to Florences. How did their parents affect their attitudes toward life? How did the limitations of Edwards mother shape his feelings about responsibility and women? Was Florence drawn to her mothers competitiveness?
9. To what extent was the financial gulf between Edward and Florence a source of trouble? How might the relationship have unfolded, particularly during this time period, if Edward, not Florence, had been the spouse with financial security?
10. Chapter four recounts the moment when Edward tells Florence he loves her because shes “square,” not in spite of it. Are their opposing tastes the product of their temperaments or the episodes in their young lives? What is your understanding of her revulsion to sex?
11. Discuss the novels setting, which forms its title. What is the effect of the creaky hotel McEwan creates, and the crashing permanent waves on a beach where the temperatures are still chilly in June? What does it say about the newlyweds that this is the scene of their wedding night?
12. In the end, Edward explores various “what ifs.” Would their marriage have lasted if he had consented to her request for platonic living arrangements? What are the best ways to predict whether a couple can sustain a marriage?
13. How would Edward and Florence have fared in the twenty-first century? Has the nature of love changed as western society has evolved?
14. The author tells us that the marriage ended because Edward was callous, and that as Florence ran from him, she was at the same time desperately in love with him. Why did Edward respond the way he did? Why was it so difficult for them to be honest about their feelings? How would you have reacted that night?
15. Discuss the structure of On Chesil Beach . What is the effect of reading such a compressed storyline, weaving one night with the years before and after it? How did it shape your reading to see only Edwards point of view in the end? What might Florences perspective have looked like?
16. In what ways does On Chesil Beach represent a departure for Ian McEwan? In what ways does it enhance the themes in his previous fiction?
Unfolding with the mesmerizing, deeply human storytelling that has made Ian McEwan one of the most beloved authors of his generation, On Chesil Beach
captures one night and two lifetimes, wound into a stunning turning point. In taut yet poignantly written scenes, newlyweds Florence and Edward navigate their wedding night, coping with their greatest fears and wishes. The year is 1962; they have been steeped in a culture whose expectations for composure and maturity are high, with roles clearly defined and information about the mysteries of marriage—sexual or otherwise—rarely shared. As we watch husband and wife experience their first nuptial hours, On Chesil Beach
illuminates the fragile dance of intimacy, a haunting ode to the true selves we so often refuse to reveal.
The questions and topics that follow are designed to enhance your reading of On Chesil Beach . We hope they will enrich your experience of this provocative novel. For more information about the author and his previous books, visit www.IanMcEwan.com. To explore other ideal titles for reading groups, visit us at www.NanATalese.com.