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October 23, 2008 | Comments ()



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100 Books in One Year #17: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Cannonball Read / Brian Prisco

Book Reviews | October 23, 2008 | Comments ()


I’ve never read any Ian McEwan, though I’ve been meaning to. There are so many authors like that for me. And all of his books sound promising and lyrical, but I’ve never been able to muster up any sort of excitement to pick them up off the shelf. So when this was thrown out as a suggestion, by Ben, and it was available at my dinky little local library, well, I assumed it was kismet, and leapt upon it.

This is an unbelievably well-crafted love story that’s as dense and rich as double chocolate layer cake (I’m fat — deal with my food metaphors). It hinges on a young couple’s wedding night, but it ripples outward from there, adding layers and layers until the fateful moment of consummation. Poignancy is a term that casually gets flung out to any sort of melodrama, but in the truest sense this novel captures that.

Edward and Florence are two young people in their 20s who are spending their wedding night in a hotel overlooking Chesil Beach. Except for a few contextual comments, and the book jacket, I would never have known this takes place in 1962, because it feels almost Victorian. Their behaviors, their sexual proclivities, their mannerisms and speech. It’s as if it sort of drifts timelessly, which helps to add to the circumstances, and adds such thickness to the story.

What haunts me about this brief little story (it barely cleared the hurdle for qualification by 3 scant pages), is it’s incredible maturity. It explores how frightening it can be to open yourself to another person in the name of love. It studies the absolute fear that you bring to a relationship — whether you’re good enough, whether you’ve got the romantic skills, true feeling about your partner. It’s an study in the parts of relationships that often get soap operaed or played for comic relief.

In David Foster Wallace’s “The Broom of the System,” he writes the dialogue between characters so that at some points there are pauses in the conversation, and he expresses it as such: “….” I wanted to get this tattooed on my shoulder blades. It represents deep meditative thought, or things left unsaid, or listening. It’s something that’s not expressed when couples fight in literature or film. Here, we live in these characters heads, rolling back and forth and taking both sides in the fight.

My lady love and I have a promise that keeps us through our turbulent times: “Nothing matters but I love you.” And that’s so important here, in this novel. It’s about those moments. And how fragile a relationship can be. And about things being left unsaid. It’s about doing nothing, and the consequences of that action. I couldn’t believe how much McEwan packed into such a small story, but it was powerful. I will definitely be reading him again, if only to see how he dances with a full novel.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. You can read more about it, here.



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