As you can see from my reading list for the year (shown in the left margin of MyPorch) and posts here, here, and here, I love to read. And according to my spreadsheet of books read, I have finished five of Ian McEwan’s twelve novels. All of them have been pretty quirky. They tend to describe unusual and odd circumstances and characters. Yet McEwan has a way of making those oddities seem at least as normal, or as understandable, as they are twisted. His latest book, On Chesil Beach, is no different. Sure it is not twisted in the same way that The Cement Garden is (i.e., entombing a dead mother in cement in the cellar), but it is emotionally disturbing.
Despite their love for each other, the two main characters in On Chesil Beach (two virgins on their wedding night in 1962) lead isolated emotional lives which cause all kinds of complications on their honeymoon. Although their specific circumstances might seem foreign to those of who came of age in the 1980s or later, the challenges they face communicating with each other can feel awfully familiar. After all, emotion can interfere with even the best interpersonal skills. We have all had those moments where something is said or unsaid–often times unknowingly–that leads to confusion, hurt feelings, or anger. Those moments when language gets in the way of love.
There are other currents at work in this book far more disturbing than bad communication, but I am not going to talk about those issues here. I don’t want to ruin it for you.
The book is at times funny, beautiful, and devastating. Over the course of a year I read books that I end up either hating, tolerating, liking, or loving. And–not being a fan of self-help books–on rarer occasions I read one that grabs me emotionally and gives me something to think about. It is amazing that McEwan is able to do that in this smallish book of 200 pages. Go out and get this book.
SPOILER ALERT: Don’t read the comments left for the post if you want to discover one of the mysteries of the book…
Absolutely, McEwan is remarkable. I just read this title myself while I was on a trip to Europe–you say they are both virgins on their wedding night, but I’m wondering, is she really a virgin? There is, or so I thought, an implied incestuous relationship: those trips alone with her father, her memory of him undressing on the sailboat…
I think there probably was a case of abuse in her childhood, but I think she still technically have been a virgin.