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On Chesil Beach
Cover of On Chesil Beach
On Chesil Beach
Soon to be a major motion picture starring Saoirse Ronan, Emily Watson, Anne-Marie Duff, and Samuel West
England, 1962: Florence and Edward are celebrating their wedding in a hotel on the Dorset coast. Yet as they dine, the expectation of their marital duties become overwhelming. Unbeknownst to them both, the decisions they make this night will resonate throughout their lives. With exquisite prose, Ian McEwan creates a story of lives transformed by a gesture not made or a word not spoken—and brilliantly illuminates the collision of sexual longing, deep-seated fears, and romantic fantasy on a young couple's wedding night.
Soon to be a major motion picture starring Saoirse Ronan, Emily Watson, Anne-Marie Duff, and Samuel West
England, 1962: Florence and Edward are celebrating their wedding in a hotel on the Dorset coast. Yet as they dine, the expectation of their marital duties become overwhelming. Unbeknownst to them both, the decisions they make this night will resonate throughout their lives. With exquisite prose, Ian McEwan creates a story of lives transformed by a gesture not made or a word not spoken—and brilliantly illuminates the collision of sexual longing, deep-seated fears, and romantic fantasy on a young couple's wedding night.
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    ONE

    They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy. They had just sat down to supper in a tiny sitting room on the first floor of a Georgian inn. In the next room, visible through the open door, was a four–poster bed, rather narrow, whose bedcover was pure white and stretched startlingly smooth, as though by no human hand. Edward did not mention that he had never stayed in a hotel before, whereas Florence, after many trips as a child with her father, was an old hand. Superficially, they were in fine spirits. Their wedding, at St. Mary’s, Oxford, had gone well; the service was decorous, the reception jolly, the send–off from school and college friends raucous and uplifting. Her parents had not condescended to his, as they had feared, and his mother had not significantly misbehaved, or completely forgotten the purpose of the occasion. The couple had driven away in a small car belonging to Florence’s mother and arrived in the early evening at their hotel on the Dorset coast in weather that was not perfect for mid–July or the circumstances, but entirely adequate: it was not raining, but nor was it quite warm enough, according to Florence, to eat outside on the terrace as they had hoped. Edward thought it was, but, polite to a fault, he would not think of contradicting her on such an evening.

    So they were eating in their rooms before the partially open French windows that gave onto a balcony and a view of a portion of the English Channel, and Chesil Beach with its infinite shingle. Two youths in dinner jackets served them from a trolley parked outside in the corridor, and their comings and goings through what was generally known as the honeymoon suite made the waxed oak boards squeak comically against the silence. Proud and protective, the young man watched closely for any gesture or expression that might have seemed satirical. He could not have tolerated any sniggering. But these lads from a nearby village went about their business with bowed backs and closed faces, and their manner was tentative, their hands shook as they set items down on the starched linen tablecloth. They were nervous too.

    This was not a good moment in the history of English cuisine, but no one much minded at the time, except visitors from abroad. The formal meal began, as so many did then, with a slice of melon decorated by a single glazed cherry. Out in the corridor, in silver dishes on candle–heated plate warmers, waited slices of long–ago roasted beef in a thickened gravy, soft boiled vegetables, and potatoes of a bluish hue. The wine was from France, though no particular region was mentioned on the label, which was embellished with a solitary darting swallow. It would not have crossed Edward’s mind to have ordered a red.

    Desperate for the waiters to leave, he and Florence turned in their chairs to consider the view of a broad mossy lawn, and beyond, a tangle of flowering shrubs and trees clinging to a steep bank that descended to a lane that led to the beach. They could see the beginnings of a footpath, dropping by muddy steps, a way lined by weeds of extravagant size—giant rhubarb and cabbages they looked like, with swollen stalks more than six feet tall, bending under the weight of dark, thick–veined leaves. The garden vegetation rose up, sensuous and tropical in its profusion, an effect heightened by the gray, soft light and a delicate mist drifting in from the sea, whose steady motion of advance and withdrawal made sounds of gentle thunder, then sudden hissing against...
About the Author-
  • IAN McEWAN is the author of two collections of stories and ten previous novels, including Enduring Love, Amsterdam, for which he won the Booker Prize in 1998, Atonement, and Saturday.
Reviews-
  • AudioFile Magazine For me, writing has to be followed by reading aloud, Ian McEwan says in an interview included with this audiobook. His comment explains why his narration of this novella equals what the finest actors might accomplish. The story, however, is not McEwan at his best. Why this author, so adept at portraying the violence surrounding contemporary life, should draw us back to a nostalgic look at a doomed marriage in the early '60s, in which both the bride and groom were virgins, is a mystery in itself. But even here, there's a violent undercurrent. And even when he's not in top form, McEwan's writing draws in the listener. Shattered and dysfunctional as their lives may be, these are characters we care about. R.R. (c) AudioFile 2007, Portland, Maine
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from March 5, 2007
    Not quite novel or novella, McEwan's masterful 13th work of fiction most resembles a five-part classical drama rendered in prose. It opens on the anxious Dorset Coast wedding suite dinner of Edward Mayhew and the former Florence Ponting, married in the summer of 1963 at 23 and 22 respectively; the looming dramatic crisis is the marriage's impending consummation, or lack of it. Edward is a rough-hewn but sweet student of history, son of an Oxfordshire primary school headmaster and a mother who was brain damaged in an accident when Edward was five. Florence, daughter of a businessman and (a rarity then) a female Oxford philosophy professor, is intense but warm and has founded a string quartet. Their fears about sex and their inability to discuss them form the story's center. At the book's midpoint, McEwan (Atonement
    , etc.) goes into forensic detail about their naïve and disastrous efforts on the marriage bed, and the final chapter presents the couple's explosive postcoital confrontation on Chesil Beach. Staying very close to this marital trauma and the circumstances surrounding it (particularly class), McEwan's flawless omniscient narration has a curious (and not unpleasantly condescending) fable-like quality, as if an older self were simultaneously disavowing and affirming a younger. The story itself isn't arresting, but the narrator's journey through it is.

  • The Washington Post Book World "Breathtaking...On Chesil Beach takes on subjects of universal interest and creates a small but complete universe around them. McEwan's prose is as masterly as ever, here striking a remarkably subtle balance between detachment and sympathy, dry wit and deep compassion. It reaffirms my conviction that no one writing in English surpasses or even matches McEwan's accomplishment."
  • The San Francisco Chronicle "Remarkable, engaging, and gripping...On Chesil Beach is not only a wonderful read but also perhaps the rarest of things: a perfect novel. Certainly it affords the reader every kind of satisfaction, from graphic and dramatic scenes to subtle pentimento effects, from quotidian matters to high drama and intense emotion...McEwan is reminiscent of that greatest of novelists in matters sexual: D.H. Lawrence...[But] in On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan has outdone D.H. Lawrence, given the daunting challenge he has set himself in writing a novel on a fraught and loaded topic like this. What higher praise can there be?"
  • The Miami Herald "Momentous...On Chesil Beach builds a potent suspense swiftly, and McEwan details the couple's sexual encounter with unnerving precision. Such meticulousness underscores how a few moments can define a future, how difficult it is to lay ourselves bare, how human to flee from better destinies. Fortunately, though life is never easy, as the narrator reminds us, gorging ourselves on McEwan's impeccable prose is."
  • The Boston Globe "Wrenching, funny, smart, and hugely gratifying in unexpected ways, On Chesil Beach packs a pretty good wallop of its own...On Chesil Beach is as merciful to its characters as it is merciless in its heartbreak. Their bruised pasts and querulous hopes unfold beautifully through the novel, almost destined to collide and then fade into the sorrow of real life."
  • The New York Post "How McEwan writes such extraordinary suspense into the ordinary is a marvel...On Chesil Beach leaves one's appetite for the woes and stuff of life unsated. It's mostly a story of how we mistake those we love most, and how we are imprisoned in our inability to name what we urgently must speak."
  • The Philadelphia Inquirer "On Chesil Beach is completely absorbing...This short book is intense and powerful...It is no exaggeration to say that the book is a masterpiece--in miniature, maybe, but a masterpiece nonetheless."
  • Boston Globe "In structure and design, this small and exquisite novel is markedly different from McEwan's magisterial Atonement, but it still possesses the author's moody worldview, wherein beauty and human intimacy are frailties too often crushed by chance. A newly married couple in mid-20th-century England, bringing their worries and their pasts to their wedding night, try only to connect: The result is a cello suite of sadness, encompassing an entire swatch of English culture and the legacy of roads not taken."
  • The Roanoake Times "McEwan [is] one of our best contemporary fiction writers...In On Chesil Beach, he continues his fine tradition as sage and master storyteller."
  • Entertainment Weekly "Exquisite... Sexual squeamishness has never been written about more adroitly or sympathetically...a small masterpiece. 'A.'"
  • Santa Cruz Sentinel "A book that shouldn't be shocking on this side of the '60s, On Chesil Beach shocks us nonetheless by showing how very little our institutions understand the messiness of the human heart. McEwan is at his best here, extending a single moment to include all moments...The rush of the last chapter skidding into the present will surely give you vertigo as the past and the present collide in a remarkable conclusion. On Chesil Beach is both delicate and brawny--vintage McEwan."
  • St. Louis Post-Dispatch "elegant [and] unflinching...McEwan has worked his prose to an almost Edwardian cadence...
    This is McEwan's fourth short novel, and it is the most deceptively subversive...oddly beautiful."
  • Booklist "Achingly beautiful.... An ingenious exploration of addled psychology."
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