I just finished reading On Chesil Beach Ian McEwan’s latest novel and loved it as much as I have his other more recent but larger works, Saturday and Atonement. The themes that underpin his larger works are evident in spades in this compelling love story. Here MacEwan explores how the lives of two ordinary people are irrevocably changed through a moment of indecision.
Set in Britain in the early sixties, it chronicles the relationship between Edward and Florence, two young lovers from very different worlds. Edward grew up in the English country side where “the beds were never made, the sheets rarely changed,” the bathroom never cleaned, his mother absent. Florence, an aspiring classical musician, grew up in a well-to-do family that skied, played tennis and served bouillabaise, and exotic cheeses. He loves pubs, she loves concerts.
Yet, the differences that separate them is overcome by love that at least for a time, has the capacity to bridge their social worlds. So much so that even though it’s clear that Florence has an inability to deal with physical intimacy and indeed is repulsed by it neither of them venture a discussion concerning it during their year long courtship. Instead Edward choses to believe, albeit frustratingly, that Florence’s modesty will dissolve with the safety and security of marriage. But what Florence feels, is in fact, sheer terror and revulsion at the thought of the consummation of their marriage that only continues to build as their wedding day approaches. Florence regards the mere thought of intimacy with “a visceral dread, a helpless disgust as palpable as seasickness.”
It’s no surprise of course, that their wedding night is a disaster. But what makes this story so compelling is MacEwan’s ability to lay bear the elaborate ritual of love and repulsion, the tension between marriage and obligation, trust and ego. Although there is a reference that perhaps Florence had suffered some abuse this isn’t explored any further. What we have are two individuals who ‘love’ each other but don’t essentially know each other. And at the critical moment when they must lay themselves bare she suffers a failure of courage and he allows his ego to betray his heart. This time love can’t save them.
Although Florence and Edward aren’t exactly products of the Victorian age, neither are they a part of the pop culture/sexual revolution that was already starting to take the western world by storm. But even if they were, would that have made any difference at all? What McEwan explores so beautifully is what lies at the heart of being human; that we are flawed and that it is this that sets the course of our incomplete lives.