Click here to read reviewer Helen Carter's take on On Chesil Beach.
McEwan is a brilliant observer of human nature, focusing on the pivotal if unobserved moments in his character’s lives, mining these fertile moments for the missed communications and errors that alter the course of personal history.
On Chesil Beach is no exception, the couple in question the newly married Edward and Florence Mayhew, absorbed in the post-nuptial dinner of their wedding eve in the honeymoon suite of an inn on the Dorset coast. Speaking of trivialities, hesitating over dessert, the couple is not yet ready to take that fateful step into the bedroom.
The time is 1962, the stultifying social constrictions of the 1950s still hovering, years from the upheavals that will rock the late Sixties. In their early twenties, neither partner has life experience with which to gauge their perceptions, trapped in their private expectations.
An accomplished violinist, Florence has long found comfort in the particularities of the musical life; a romantic at heart, she has often imagined herself with Edward, viewing marriage in cloudy, rapturous notions with no concern for practicality. For his part, Edward sees his new wife as the Holy Grail after a long siege of postponements, his physical overtures quickly rebuffed to the point that consummation is his sole obsession.
Whatever rebellion she experiences Florence keeps to herself, unable to bear the discomfort of conflict although increasingly irritated with her family - her mother’s distance, her father’s cloying presence in her life. Constrained by Florence’s restrictions, Edward has long been sorely tested by a family of origin that taxed his youth with burdensome pretensions.
In the first blush of innocence, the pair seems well matched, their ineptitude nearly charming and certainly representative of the era. Conservative, goal-oriented products of their society, the couple is hardly likely to thrust themselves beyond the social conventions that have thus far kept them locked in a silent struggle, he to seduce, she to defend. Unfortunately, both nurture expectations that are unrealistic, a precarious balance of sexual anticipation and sexual revulsion.
Exhibiting an appalling lack of communication, neither has seen fit to share their concerns and fears beforehand. The couple is locked in an impasse, one that is only temporarily resolved by Florence’s escape to the dark sliver of beach outside.
Thus does McEwan capture a profoundly relatable moment in time from a bygone era, casting his characters in a perfectly pitched contretemps where their assumptions betray the perfection of the moment, reality an unexpected guest. Once more McEwan proves himself an unparalleled provocateur.