This short novel takes place on the first night of their honeymoon, with many flashbacks, and at the end a great flash forward, and at the core an enormous misunderstanding … It is difficult to judge whether to give away the plot of this book...is to lessen its impact on the reader. McEwan writes prose judiciously; his books seem to depend on plain writing and story and careful plotting, with much detail added to make the reader believe that these words on the page must be followed and believed as the reader would follow and believe a well-written piece of journalism. On Chesil Beach, however, is full of odd echoes and has elements of folk tale, which make the pleasures of reading it rather greater than the joys of knowing what happened in the end.
Our appetite for Ian McEwan’s form of mastery is a measure of our pleasure in fiction’s parallax impact on our reading brains: his narratives hurry us feverishly forward, desperate for the revelation of (imaginary) secrets, and yet his sentences stop us cold to savor the air of another human being’s (imaginary) consciousness. McEwan’s books have the air of thrillers even when, as in On Chesil Beach, he seems to have systematically replaced mortal stakes — death and its attendant horrors — with risks of embarrassment, chagrin and regret … The bulk of On Chesil Beach consists of a single sex scene, one played, because of the novel’s brevity and accessibility, in something like ‘real time’...The situation is miniature and enormous, dire and pathetic, tender and irrevocable. McEwan treats it with a boundless sympathy, one that enlists the reader even as it disguises the fact that this seeming novel of manners is as fundamentally a horror novel as any McEwan’s written.
Convention used to portray the ardent groom and the blushful but receptive bride. Edward lives up to the first billing, but Florence is a bit more than blushful; she is, to be precise, frigid and hysterical. It’s not even a matter of closing her eyes and thinking of England; the very thought of penetration alarms and repels her. At intervals, McEwan sketches the backstory of each … After an exquisitely painful exchange of words on the beach where Florence has run—both parties are depicted as relishing the saying of things that cannot possibly be unsaid—the curtain falls on the marriage, and it’s plain that the two will never be able to meet, or to speak, again.
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. Although On Chesil Beach grapples with some of Mr. McEwan’s perennial themes — the hazards of innocence, the sudden mutation of the ordinary into the awful, the inexorable grip of time past over time present — it does so in a mechanical and highly arbitrary fashion … Mr. McEwan vaguely suggests that Florence’s problem stems from some sort of incestuous relationship with her father, but his depiction of her past is sketchy and stilted, and he never succeeds in making her emotional life remotely palpable — or plausible — to the reader...As for Edward, he too emerges as a bizarrely opaque character: volatile, self-absorbed and incurious, a myopic twit who never seems to think it odd that Florence dislikes kissing him or making out.
McEwan recreates the atmosphere with his usual scrupulous accuracy. Comforts are few and the food is dreadful—‘slices of long-ago roasted beef in a thickened gravy, soft boiled vegetables, and potatoes of a bluish hue’—but not as dreadful as the throttling inhibition … On Chesil Beach is brief and carefully plotted, the writing is measured, the tone of voice is forgiving and nostalgic. In other words, it is a fine example of emotion recollected in tranquillity. Even so, I couldn’t help regretting the fun McEwan might have had with these sad fumbling innocents when he was younger, less mellow, and a great deal less forbearing.
Slim enough to gulp down in one sitting, On Chesil Beach could double as an effective pamphlet on the benefits of premarital couples counseling … When Edward manages to say, ‘I’m so happy here with you,’ and Florence responds with ‘I’m so happy too,’ the mirroring sentences show that they’re both trapped, on an island the size of a bed, in an ocean the size of a life. All their previous conversations cannot help them, and with frightening swiftness everything is on the verge of ruin … On Chesil Beach is...meticulous in its specificity of time and place. The historical coordinates aren’t simply important, but indeed are integral, to the success of McEwan’s project.
On Chesil Beach is more a novella than a novel, weighing in at around 40,000 words, but like those other books it is in no important sense a miniature. Instead, 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 … Almost from the novel's first sentence, the reader's heart aches for these two young people. They are so earnest, so clumsy, so naive, so desperately in love. But they seem incapable of reaching across the great divide that proper society placed between unmarried men and women four and a half decades ago, incapable of talking through their desires and fears.
Every detail in On Chesil Beach tells the reader that the new age has not yet dawned, starting with the fact that Edward and Florence are honeymooning on England's Dorset coast and not the shores of the Mediterranean. There's little swinging of any kind; Britannia has ceased to rule (as is pointed out in the novel) but is not yet remotely cool … 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.
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 … It's 1962 – just a few years away from the sexual liberation movement – and Florence and Edward, a violinist and a history graduate, are enduring one of the most squirm-inducing honeymoons in the literary canon. Even the food is bad: an overcooked roast beef dinner with a slice of melon with a maraschino cherry on top to provide a hint of elegance … McEwan details their night in intentionally painful detail, but he isn't playing his hapless lovers for comedy. He regards them compassionately and successfully makes the case that what happens to the idealistic couple is both inevitable and qualifies as a tragedy.
Although the central event of the novel's plot is the disastrous nonconsummation of their marriage, McEwan isn't here to tell us a smutty joke. The couple's ignorance of their own and each other's sexual needs is a symptom, not a punch line. And, far from being a relic of a quaint past, it's as contemporary as a misunderstood text message … McEwan reveals deftly how, despite their differences, the two fill holes in each other's emotional lives...McEwan understands those emotional dynamics, but Edward and Florence don't. They are in love with their ideas of each other, and when the first truly bad thing happens between them, they retreat back inside their own heads. Standing on the stones of Chesil Beach, neither can reach out to touch the real person standing there.
On Chesil Beach has a quiet precision and a depth of sympathy that make it unlike anything else I’ve read by McEwan. He isn’t out to shock here (as he was in his earliest fiction) or to astonish readers with his storytelling wizardry (as he did in Atonement). Instead, he’s intent on analyzing the desires and inhibitions — down to the smallest look, breath and hair — of two decent would-be lovers who have no idea how to bridge the gulf in appetites that separates them … The period detail is astonishingly good, especially when Edward is entering the unfamiliarly upscale world that Florence’s family inhabits. But it is McEwan’s close, blameless psychological reading of Florence and Edward themselves that makes this book a masterpiece.
...wrenching, funny, smart, and hugely gratifying in unexpected ways … Virginal jitters notwithstanding, we know from the outset that theirs will be a marriage with plenty of hurdles to clear: Because the author cross cuts between Edward's and Florence's alternating points of view, their disparate (and largely unexpressed) inner narratives weave toward and away from each other like drunks in a bar fight. They've chosen to love each other for all the touching and wrong reasons that define the game … On Chesil Beach is as merciful to its characters as it is merciless in its heartbreak. Their bruised pasts and querulous hopes unfold beautifully through the novel, almost destined to collide and then fade into the sorrow of real life.
Never before has McEwan focused his fiction so narrowly, detailing little more than an hour in the 1962 wedding night of British newlyweds. Yet the psychological subtlety and richness of detail are as acute as they are in his longer novels, with the compression rendering this achievement all the more striking … On Chesil Beach is a novel about many things: the British class system, changing morés, the slumber from which young people would awaken with the Beatles, the nature of love and the sexual expression of it. Yet it’s primarily a novel of masterful sentences that express (sometimes through spaces and silences) what the characters themselves are incapable of expressing.