As an English major, I am normally a snob toward contemporary works. I unashamedly prefer the old and Gothic to whatever teen angst crap is being churned out these days. However, after stumbling upon a movie trailer for “On Chesil Beach,” I thought I would give the novella a try.
Author Ian McEwan wrote the novella in 2007, but the plot takes place in 1960s southern England. The story revolves around two newlyweds, Edward and Florence, and the events of their wedding night. McEwan masterfully sets the plot in the early 1960s, when conformity was still in style and the sexual revolution had barely begun. Both Edward and Florence are virgins, so naturally they are intimidated at what is supposed to happen now that they are man and wife. The night goes from bad to worse as the two start to get intimate — Edward gets a bit too excited, causing Florence to storm off to the beach.
While my description of the plot so far makes this book sound raunchy, it is anything but. McEwan opens with the couple in their hotel room immediately after the wedding, showing the evolution of their relationship through flashbacks. He portrays Edward as a respectable man with normal desires; nothing about him is rude or disrespectful to Florence. Though Edward is a sympathetic character, the star of the show is Florence. McEwan does not depict Florence as a stereotypical submissive woman; she is caring and willing to do certain things, not all, because she has no intimate desires. Her love for Edward is the driving force that causes Florence to put her own personal interests aside to the point where she would do anything to make her marriage work.
I have never encountered a character like Florence throughout my reading exploits. McEwan hints that she may have been sexually abused by her father, but never explicitly says so, leaving it up to the reader for interpretation. She is deeply in love with Edward’s compassion and intellect, not his physicality. While this book does not have the happiest of endings, it is refreshing to read a novella with an unconventional protagonist choosing which demons to face and which to hide from.