This is a relatively short novel (just over 200 pages), but it carries quite a devastating emotional punch, particularly in its final chapters. McEwan...moreThis is a relatively short novel (just over 200 pages), but it carries quite a devastating emotional punch, particularly in its final chapters. McEwan's story concerns a newly married young couple in the early 1960's, neither of whom are sexually experienced. Edward looks forward to the societal license granted to him by his wedding to act on his physical impulses; Florence's love for Edward is honest, but the wedding night looms in her imagination like an unpleasant chore.
McEwan follows this couple as they arrive in their honeymoon suite and pares apart their respective emotional histories with an almost cold precision. Edward and Florence live just on the edge of the massive cultural changes of the mid-1960's; Florence, for example, anticipates a successful career with her string quartet and politely tolerates Edward's fondness for Chuck Berry and early rock & roll: "When the tunes were so elementary, mostly in simple four-four time, why this relentless thumping and crashing and clattering to keep time? What was the point, when there was already a rhythm guitar, and often a piano?"
Different taste in music is probably the least of this couple's trouble, but McEwan uses this polite disagreement ("He kissed her and told her she was the squarest person in all of Western civilization.") as an indicator of future divergencies. The literally climactic scene of the wedding consummation reads at first like slapstick, but McEwan's precise delving into Edward's and Florence's internal dialogue makes it tragic. The novel turns entirely on the reader's acceptance of this scene, and McEwan's blend of emotional and physical detail is flawless. It's a scene that would only be lessened by paraphrase (or a filmed interpretation, for that matter).
McEwan's skill is to use these two characters, neither of which is ultimately very likeable, to offer a subtle indication of what the convulsive societal shifts of the 1960s freed us from and, more important, to demonstrate how "by doing nothing. . . the entire course of a life can be changed." By the end of the novel, it's not just the characters who feel the chill winds off the beach.
The clumsy fumbling of a newly married couple is not unknown to me. Nor is the frustration of a young man whose partner is less experienced than he. This is McEwan's starting point, and perhaps one that elicits easy empathy, but by the time the full consequences of this young couple's inexperience become evident, the reader is almost divided in their loyalties (or pity) for the characters.
More so than other McEwan novels I've read, On Chesil Beach carries a direct moralistic tone, one that would seem chiding in the hands of a lesser stylist. The beauty of McEwan's language, the patience of his narrative voice as he outlines the tangled emotional backgrounds of his characters, and the sense of omniscient pity he uses to instruct us are Hardy-esque. The impact of this small novel is heartbreaking and cold. (less)
It's not so much the story--in itself, this is a well-crafted fantasy world, complete with noble horse-riding peoples, stern giants, and delicate elve...moreIt's not so much the story--in itself, this is a well-crafted fantasy world, complete with noble horse-riding peoples, stern giants, and delicate elven-folk on a quest of profound importance against an enemy of world-shattering magnitude--as much as Donaldson's overwrought prose that makes this series something of a drag to read. Donaldson wants his tale to carry all the mythic import of Tolkien, but he doesn't quite have the poetic flair that makes Tolkien's characters live and breathe for us. Instead, Donaldson substitutes a needlessly ornate vocabulary and an unlikeable protagonist to challenge the reader's notions of conventional fantasy. In doing so, however, Donaldson forgets to give us any reason to care about his characters. You don't get much more earnest than naming your main character Thomas Covenant! Is this supposed to be profound? When I first read this series, I took Donaldson's verbosity as a representation of Covenant's inner turmoil, but on re-reading this book, I think it's just that Donaldson is not a very good writer. (less)