Jason Pettus's Reviews > On Chesil Beach

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
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Mar 24, 2008

did not like it
Read in September, 2007

** spoiler alert ** (The much longer full review can be found at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com].)

Regular readers know that this month CCLaP is taking an extended look at the nominees for the 2007 Booker Prize; and regular readers also know that so far I've been mostly disappointed by the nominees I've read, finding most of them to be inconsequential little wisps of stories, many of them well-written but certainly not weighty enough to be called "The Best Novel of 2007." And thus do we come to the fifth Booker nominee to be reviewed here, as well as the one easily most well-known, Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach; and let me tell you, if a common complaint about this year's Booker nominees is of their slight and inconsequential nature, On Chesil Beach isn't helping matters at all, in that it is such a non-excuse for a novel as to almost not exist. In fact, I can literally give you the entire plot of this 200-page, paperback-sized book in literally 177 words; and this is a major spoiler alert, by the way, because I'm not kidding, I really am about to tell you the entire storyline of On Chesil Beach from beginning to end, without skipping a single detail, in 177 words. Ready?

A young middle-class couple get married in England in 1962, and spend their wedding night on Chesil Beach. He only got married because he's horny as hell and lives in middle-class 1962 England, where getting married is the only chance you're going to have to get laid, and as a result has now become a cuckold employee of his upper-class father-in-law; she despises the very idea of sex altogether, but is too much of a coward to tell her husband, instead spending months psyching herself up into performing her upcoming "wifely duties." The wedding night arrives. He gets so excited that he has a premature ejaculation on his wife's stomach. She becomes so disgusted that she flees the room in a panic. He chases her down the beach, where they have an explosive argument based on mutual misunderstanding of each other's behavior. She leaves him that night and their marriage is annulled (presumably). And he spends the rest of his life thinking about "the relationship that was never meant to be."

No, dude, seriously, that's it; that's the entire freaking plotline of the book. Which, fine, I don't necessarily mind when it's a 10,000-word short story in a literary magazine, that I'm reading on a boring Sunday afternoon down at my neighborhood cafe; but seriously, as a standalone book for 22 damn dollars? And that the Booker committee has the gall to nominate as the best novel of the entire year? Seriously? Are you kidding me? It's hard for me to...
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Comments (showing 1-20 of 20) (20 new)

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Jessica You should add a spoiler alert to this review.


Jason Pettus Thanks for reminding me; the "spoiler" option wasn't available here at Goodreads when I first published this review.


James I think you've missed the point. Any book can be summarized in such a matter of fact way. The beauty of this slim volume is in the reading of it,the emotional resonance it evokes. Sometimes in sex we meet our greatest disappointments, and these disappointments can reflect the way in which we approach our life, our own hang ups and those of the culture in which we live. Kudos to the author for packing so much in so little. If ever there was an example of the cliched: less is more, this novel is it.


Dante I agree with James, Jason completely missed this one. McEwan's startling skill is how he gets the reader completely into the heads of his characters in a way that builds incredible empathy.

If you need plot, read Ludlum. Read McEwan for compelling characters and insight.


Katrina Passick Lumsden Yeah. You missed the point entirely.


Jessica I think you get the point, though I find the woman far more flawed than the man. I also don't think he got married to get laid, but I do think she was extremely annoying. I also found the ending where he thinks how much better life could have been with her silly, how her narrow minded focus on music was actually great, she achieved her goals, but at serious expense of actually taking part in life. I could deal with her not being interested in sex if she'd have just dealt with it.


message 7: by Michael (last edited Jan 22, 2010 08:52PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Michael You make a good point Jessica, but also consider that the man at the end of the novel is thinking about the path not taken. Had he lived his life with her, or even viewed it objectively, he would have seen her problems and maybe realized she was kind of narrow minded or whatever. But because they didn't, he, like so many people, wonder "what if," and mostly when they wonder that, they tend to think that life may have been better than the one they lived.


Chris Gager I liked the book but wouldn't nominate it for a fiction novel award. It's too brief for that.


message 9: by Joy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joy Wells Well size isn't everything, but I guess it matters a lot to some guys.


Lucie Surely books don't have to have a complicated plot line to be good, if so a great many brilliant books would fall at the first hurdle. This book tells a story about a women damaged by events in her childhood; with extreme subtlety which makes it all the powerful. Yes it's very well hidden but if you haven't picked up on the underlying premise of the book I think you have missed the point completely.


message 11: by J (new) - rated it 5 stars

J Puntillo This book was more about the dynamics of their relationship than the climax (quite literally) and the overdramatic demise of their cookie-cutter mid-century relationship foils. If you despise the plot's simplicity, I can respect that, but the ability to deliver it with such class and poise as McEwan does so consistently is admirable and Prize-worthy by my account.


Craig You missed the point by so much that you are in another universe.


Carol I was not as enamoured of this book as I have been of this author's other books, but I could not dismiss it as easily as you have. Certainly, the story could be summarized quickly (as most stories can be) but his writing is more creative than that. This just wasn't my favorite book of his and my rating compared it to his other books, not just to his writing of this one. If it was the only book I had ever read by this author, my rating would have been higher.


message 14: by Liz (new) - rated it 2 stars

Liz Maddox The only detail you left out was that both Edward and Florance can blame their mothers.


Ingrid OMGoodness I agree - you missed the point. And a huge point that this woman was sexually abused.... which explains her behavior, and the time period, his. I thought this book was brilliantly written and so adept at showing the raw consequences of the assumptions and stories we create in place of real, open communication. If only she could have been honest about what had happened to her at the hands of her father, if only he could have been honest with her about his deepest desires.... if only.


Martin This reviewer has not understood this book at all. What the author has achieved is a near perfect evocation of a moment in time. A novelistic haiku. Beautiful and moving.


Alice What on earth do you mean when you describe him as a "cuckold"? Did you mean to use a different word or am I missing something?


Keith Lawrence Wow - like others have said before me, you really did miss the point here. You may have got the storyline - but the essence of the book is far far more. I have to admit I did not love this particular McEwan, but there's a lot more to it than you have given credit.


Keith Lawrence And as it was only 177 pages long, you could have paid more attention. The couple can hardly be middle-class if her father is upper-class. Yes - the marriage was annulled due to non-consummation. And like Alice, not sure why you use the word 'cuckold' here as Florence is hardly playing the field!


Lyndall King Wot he said ^ .


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