Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on On Chesil Beach.
This relatively concise work, more novella than novel, centers on the disastrous wedding night of Edward and Florence in July 1962. Both are sexually naïve, and the weight of expectation bears heavy on them. While Chesil Beach, in Dorset, is real, a 22-mile wonder and a site of special scientific interest, the Georgian hotel in which the couple stay is not.
Ominously, the newlyweds have to eat a revolting meal described in forensic detail by McEwan - melon speared with glace cherries, slabs of beef, overcooked vegetables and greasy potatoes - before they can go to bed following their nuptials, to hopefully consummate their marriage.
As in McEwan's previous novels, Enduring Love, Atonement and Saturday, the focus is on a single seminal moment in a life and the dramatic fall-out that ensues. This book is as macabre and casts as much as a sense of unease as his earlier work, notably in the collection of his short stories First Love, Last Rites and in The Cement Garden, his first novel from 1978, about a family of abandoned children coming to terms with life without their parents.
In his latest novel, the yawning chasm between the couple's expectations and reality is explored. Tellingly, Edward, from a rural background, used to like a good fist fight on a Saturday night before he went to university to study history and realized such behavior was severely frowned upon. Compare him to Florence, the tremulous first violinist, the daughter of a successful Oxford family, whose mother was an academic and father a manufacturer. However, her relationship with her parents is awkward, and there is something about her father that hints at a sinister reason for her total abhorrence concerning sex.
Edward, meanwhile, has his own secrets to hide. He is portrayed as something of a country bumpkin, trying to keep secret his mother's brain damage while his family struggle to survive, living in near-squalor.
The newlyweds, although idealistic and in love, are poles apart intellectually, physically and emotionally.
The couple are hopelessly mismatched - Edward is keen to claim his new bride after months of attempting to engage her in intimate relations, and she is desperate to avoid what she dreads most - penetration - having read about it in a new bride's manual. Even the bedroom taunts them, the honeymoon suite, with its creaky bed springs and the imagined long line of previous occupants enjoying wild couplings, far removed from Florence and Edward's inexperienced fumblings.
McEwan describes the regrets of the doomed honeymoon couple: "That is how the entire course of a life can be changed - by doing nothing." The author reveals that he kept several pebbles on his desk while writing On Chesil Beach - behavior which may have annoyed environmentalists but obviously inspired the author (the offending pebbles have since been returned).
On Chesil Beach is a hybrid of McEwan's intensely dark earlier work and his more expansive later novels, such as Saturday (which is as long as this book is short.) It is disappointingly brief, and there is a sense of inevitability about how the plot develops, but nevertheless it remains very readable and enjoyable.