Oklahoman book review: 'On Chesil Beach' by Ian McEwan
"On Chesil Beach" by Ian McEwen (Anchor, 224 pages, in stores)
I believe in starting any criticism with something positive, so I will say Ian McEwen is a master wordsmith, who can turn a description of garden vegetation into a deep sense of foreboding.
Unfortunately, the plot of "On Chesil Beach" doesn't live up to the promise of the language.
It's difficult to say much about the book without spoilers, because so little happens, but here goes. Newlyweds Florence and Edward are starting their honeymoon at a hotel overlooking Chesil Beach on the English coastline, but there are hints the honey's about to turn sour. Florence is terrified and disgusted by the idea of sex, despite her love for Edward, who remains clueless about his new wife's apprehensions. As this is a family newspaper, I won't go into what happens in the bedroom, but it's a disappointing night all around.
And that's about it. I have trouble imagining why anyone who read this book thought it demanded a film adaptation, which just came out in May (and is the reason I'm reviewing it now).
We also get the newlyweds' memories of their time in school, their courtship and their engagement, all of which they seem to have gotten through without seriously talking to each other. McEwen attributes their inability to communicate to the era they live in (the early 1960s) and liberally sprinkles the manuscript with allusions to British politics of the day, young people's disagreements with their elders and things that haven't happened yet, including the sexual revolution.
I can't rule out that this will make sense to people who lived then, but I found it a bit hard to swallow. Florence doesn't have the mental vocabulary to say, "I don't think I want to do this?" Edward can't ask why his fiancée is so reluctant to go any further than kissing, because of the culture? It might have been more interesting if McEwen had set the story in the present day, so we could explore their inability to communicate more fully instead of largely attributing it to life back in the day.
The characters' backstories, which supply much of the book's bulk, also contribute little to our understanding. There are hints that Florence may have been a victim of sexual abuse, but we're never given enough to be certain that's what happened. Edward's story is even more confusing. He has a mother who suffered a brain injury, and a quick temper, which isn't explained by his mother's condition or anything else. Neither does much to illuminate his disproportionate reaction to an awkward first sexual experience.
Now, the caveat: it's possible there's something here that I'm not seeing. The book was on the short list in 2007 for the Booker Prize, which presumably is awarded by some intelligent people who know a thing or two about literature. And I can't argue that the language isn't sublime. But if you find a way to enjoy it, drop me a line and let me know. It's been a while since I've felt so let down by a book, which showed so much promise, but never delivered.
— Megan Wingerter, The Oklahoman