Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 8, 2008

On Chesil Beach (2007), by Ian McEwan

chesil-beachOn Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (9) – another study of a marriage in a time and place when women had a different view of themselves to our time. This one falters on the wedding night because of their mutual incompetence at sex. It’s 1962 and the couple are naive and innocent; it’s really about a failure of comprehension. (Though I should also tell you that one of the readers on 21st Fiction treated us to a postmodern dissertation about how the novel encapsulated post colonial trauma, so maybe I have overlooked some critical moments in the novel LOL).

This very brief comment does not do this wonderful novel justice – but too much time spent blogging means too little time reading!


  1. I enjoyed the novel and have posted on it: I thought the naivety of a couple because of its being 1962 was overdone (and for me, improbable). They had troubles and McEwan has written about them, but 1962 did not have much to do with it.


  2. I enjoyed your review, Nancy, and looking back on this brief post of mine now, I wish I’d written more.
    Even when writing about the comparatively recent past, it’s hard to generalise about the mindset of others. People’s attitudes today vary from one country to another, and can be coloured by religion, urban/rural lifestyles, social class and education, and it’s still possible to meet very naive people who have been sheltered from knowledge about matters marital by their families. This is (in my experience) particularly true of some cultures and religious groups.
    So I didn’t find On Chesil Beach unconvincing, because I didn’t think Mcewan was generalising but rather choosing a period and place when it might well have happened although such naivete wasn’t universal. All his books that I’ve read are about misunderstandings and a failure to communicate, with consequences that are tragic for the protagonists, and this one was simply using intimacy as the context.


  3. I do agree about the wide range of human experience and knowledge in every culture. Florence’s problems went beyond that. Women have been getting married for millennia in the most repressive of societies and manage to come out of it without Florence’s extreme reactions.

    As you say, the heart of McEwan’s books is misunderstanding and missed opportunities. That was true in Atonement and also in Saturday, which I liked better.


    • Well yes, but surely it’s only in comparatively recent times that women had the opportunity and the means to abandon a marriage that wasn’t going to work? Florence has her music – and a sense of self because of it – that means she doesn’t perceive her entire persona invested in being a married woman. She has a glimpse, albeit vague, of what else there might be for her. I think this is why McEwan chose the early sixties: it was a time on the cusp of huge social change, a time when women were beginning to reject society’s expectations, but were still subject to them – in a way that for the former (mostly, we’re generalising here) was not the case in the fifties, and for the latter was not the case in the seventies.


  4. You have opened an entire line of thought which I didn’t really consider before: Florence’s independence based on her competence in music. (But I found a reviewer – male? – who thought Florence was a control freak because she took charge of the quartet.) One of the things that attracted Edward to her was her absorption on her music, her focus. That it might be difficult for her to shift that focus to his needs did not occur to either of them. What I saw at the end of the book was that they did share one strong desire: to be together. That they could not made me sad.


  5. That was the tragedy of it, I thought. Sometimes love is not enough…


  6. I’m late to this discussion, I know…

    Just wanted to say that I’m glad you enjoyed it, I did too. I did read it in the week before my own wedding which was probably not a good idea… I didn’t see the setting in the recent past as a big factor – for me the naivete was the overwhelming and overarching feature.

    I don’t agree with the post-colonial trauma thing. Or maybe I just missed it. But I think that might be over-interpreting.


    • Hello, Yvann, thank you for taking time to comment and welcome to ANZ LitLovers!
      I am cross with myself all over again for not writing enough about this book. I remember the characters and the emotional landscape so well – I have a clear picture of them striding about the beach in distress, but I don’t remember the details.
      I’m fascinated to learn that you read this just before your own wedding, and checked out your review. Just as well, I bet, that the week before a wedding is so busy that one doesn’t have much time for reflection about books!


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