Sarah's Reviews > On Chesil Beach

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
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's review
Sep 17, 2007

really liked it
Recommended for: students of literature, dirty old men
Read in September, 2007

The first thing you should know about this book is that, like the other Ian McEwan books I’ve read, it is about the most uncomfortable, awkward, and squirmy thing you’ll ever read. Don’t believe me? What if I told you that the book – which is 200 pages long – only covers about two hours of time: the first two hours of a newlywed couple’s honeymoon in which they fumble to consummate their marriage? And that both of them have very embarrassing sexual dysfunctions?

Well, that’s what the book is about. The reader looks on helplessly and squirmingly as two virgins, Edward and Florence, sit in a hotel room on the beach embarrassed out of their minds. It’s 1962, on the cusp of the sexual revolution, and the pair have neither the presence of mind or even the vocabulary to communicate openly with each other. There is only a handful of words spoken until the very last chapter of the book (it was tough for me not to use the word climax here, but I try to stay classy).

For the first 50 pages or so I was convinced that McEwan was just selling a freak show to us (again) – that he’s a popular author because people like reading about sex and other people’s weirdo sex problems. Who needs a plot or well-executed sentences when we could have incest, brain damage, erectile dysfunction, and a 30,000 word sex scene? Bring on other peoples’ guilt and shame!

But I kept reading and I’m glad I did. Through a number of seamless flashbacks, the history of the couple unfolded before me – so slowly and steadily and adeptly that I am now convinced that Ian McEwan is a genius. A dirty old man genius.

It made me think back to a few years ago when Ben and I were lucky enough to interview Jim Shepard, Ben’s favorite contemporary writer and a visiting author at the University of Montana (visiting because Ben requested him, no less). We sat in the Union Club sipping straight whiskeys and Jim Shepard told us that the truly great books (he was specifically talking about Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping) are books that are constantly revelatory.

And that’s exactly what I though about On Chesil Beach. Everyone – we’re talking about the characters and me – were learning and understanding more and more deeply with each page. It felt like a blossoming or, to be less lame and corny, like a picture very slowly coming into focus. Many times when authors reveal information it seems cheap or as if they were withholding it from you in order to keep you reading – dime mystery book stuff. But McEwan’s real gift is in the natural and subtle ways that he presents information to the reader. In fact, many of the biggest revelations in the book are never said outright, but only seep into the story until you understand each one as truth. It’s really pretty well done.

So – if you can handle cringing non-stop for three or four hours and have a strong stomach, you should pick up this book. And let me know if you can figure out exactly how McEwan does what he does, because I’d like to know about it.
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02/13 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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Ken-ichi Cool review, great to read a positive opinion of a book I didn't enjoy. I can't say the act of revelation really occurred to me while reading, perhaps because, as you point out, it was executed well. Maybe I'll give another book of his a try with that in mind.

message 2: by Gesmer (new) - added it

Gesmer Gesmer Hmmm ... the event in the book that you describe in such horrified terms (I don't want to giveaway) is one that occurs all the time. It has a quasi medical name. Wow, what's your problem?

message 3: by Sarah (last edited Jul 23, 2008 06:43AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sarah Which event? the incest, brain damage, erectile dysfunction, or the 30,000 word sex scene? come to think of it, i can't think of anything with a quasi-medical name.

please do enlighten me - as happens quite often, i have no idea what my problem is.

message 4: by Gesmer (new) - added it

Gesmer Gesmer Well, I assume you were referring to the premature ejaculation scene, but if I was wrong I apologize (!)

Sarah ah. no harm done. what a book! i do think that's a medical term, not a quasi-medical one (and a common one, especially on wedding nights, i would guess).

no problem.

message 6: by David (new)

David Sarah: You capture squirminess so well. And I hadn't realized it until now, but it is indeed the precise term to cover much of McEwan's work. Great review! Thanks.

Richard I actually think the point is that neither has a true sexual dysfunction--the era in which they live has pathologized how they view what happened. Apart from her being molested, which can be overcome, their only problems were their inexperience and ignorance. For heaven's sake, he thought not masturbating for a week would FIX the premature ejaculation.

Emily Iliani OMG! SPOILERS!
(great review though and the way you mentioned of Ian McEwan's special touch; superb. he kept me riling yet transfixed for more)

Dougal Great review; thank you. Unfortunately, I don't know how McEwan does what he does, so I can't help... but I would like to know too!

message 10: by Nina (new)

Nina I came away thinking the author was showing off. Trying to edge us on and that he did quite well until I fell off the supposed cliff at the end. Like a burst balloon. Not for me any more Ian McEwan. I should have stuck with his, "Saturday," which I thought was classic page turner without all the mess.

message 11: by J.A. (new) - rated it 4 stars

J.A. Carter-Winward Hi--thank you for your review. I did take one issue with it, as did another commenter, about "both" being dysfunctional. Maybe I'm parsing, but premature ejac. is only a dysfunction for men who have it happen chronically, not some young guy who's held off spanking it for a week and is practically a virgin, don't you think? Or have you just been very, very lucky? :) That aside, you did a great job of capturing the elements of the story. I'm curious--why refer to McEwan, and recommend, to 'dirty old men?' I will confess that I know exactly how McEwan does it! Replicating it? Ah, there's the trick. It's like he's making a cake, and suddenly, he puts in a pinch of black pepper then stirs. Those flecks of pepper are the tiny anomalies he drops and we either catch them with our eye, or they go unseen because of all of the creamy yellow in front of us. Too many writers dump the pepper in, so that the yellow batter is overwhelmed. That's my take on it anyway. Well, thanks again and cheers!

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