three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
30-Sept-Oct-2007
By: 
Ian McEwan
Awards: 
user_rating: 
0

A-On Chesil BeachIan McEwan depicts a single day in the lives of Edward and Florence Mayhew—their wedding day. It is July 1962, and the couple, both virgins in their early 20s, have arrived with very different fears and expectations at the Dorset inn where they will spend their honeymoon. Although deeply in love with Edward, Florence is repulsed by the idea of sex; Edward, completely unaware of Florence’s dismay, knows that he is supposed to take the lead but is unsure of how to proceed. Jumping back and forth in time, McEwan explores their courtship against the social constraints of a repressive era, culminating in a night that will have far-reaching consequences for them both.
Nan A. Talese. 208 pages. $22. ISBN: 0385522401

San Francisco Chronicle 5 of 5 Stars
"Not only is it full of meaningful, organically significant details, but its narrative ebbs and flows in a way that demonstrates the most masterly narrative control. 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." Martin Rubin

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"The consequent story is wrenching, funny, smart, and hugely gratifying in unexpected ways. … Their bruised pasts and querulous hopes unfold beautifully through the novel, almost destined to collide and then fade into the sorrow of real life." Gail Caldwell

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"On Chesil Beach, which first appeared as a short story in The New Yorker, builds a potent suspense swiftly, and McEwan details the couple’s sexual encounter with unnerving precision. Such meticulousness underscores how a few moments can define a future, how difficult it is to lay ourselves bare, how human to flee from better destinies." Connie Ogle

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"It takes on subjects of universal interest—innocence and naiveté, self-delusion, desire and repression, opportunity lost or rejected—and creates a small but complete universe around them. McEwan’s prose is as masterly as ever, here striking a remarkably subtle balance between detachment and sympathy, dry wit and deep compassion." Jonathan Yardley

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s not that On Chesil Beach isn’t elegantly and precisely rendered; it’s just that the purposely hermetic approach isn’t quite as exciting or, frankly, fun to read as more sweeping novels such as Atonement." Yvonne Zipp

Denver Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"McEwan writes his man more convincingly than his woman, though in the interest of full disclosure, this reviewer is a woman who finds Edward more admirable and honest in his emotions than Florence, who is tightly wound when it comes to anything sexual. … In some ways it is difficult to develop much sympathy for the characters." Robin Vidimos

New York Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"After two big, ambitious novels—Atonement and Saturday—Ian 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. … The couple’s attempt to consummate their marriage, predictably enough, ends in an embarrassing encounter that will snowball into a far more dire emotional exchange, all of which is depicted by Mr. McEwan in unsavory, voyeuristic terms that are as cringemaking as they are graphic." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

Ian McEwan’s 11th novel illuminates the austerity and repression of postwar Britain as deeply as it chronicles a newly married couple’s shaky start. Most critics found McEwan’s vivid prose both wry and heartrending; his dry sense of humor underscores the innate sadness of the couple’s bewilderment and inability to connect. Some critics complained about the novel’s narrow focus, unlikable characters, and explicit descriptions of the newlyweds’ attempts to consummate their marriage. Others, however, appreciated McEwan’s obvious compassion for the Mayhews and his painstaking attention to detail. McEwan has composed a rich and evocative novel, giving modern readers a compelling peek into a very different era.

Also by the Author

Atonement (2002): 4.5 of 5 Stars Summer 2002. In this haunting story of guilt and forgiveness, 13-year-old Briony Tallis witnesses and misinterprets a lovers’ tryst on a hot summer day in 1935—with far-reaching consequences for herself and her family.