Thursday, August 02, 2007

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

I found the premise of this book intriguing. A young couple's wedding night, both virgins, contemplating the consummation of their marriage.

The setting is the 1950s, right before the sexual revolution. According to the book, they live in a time before it was fun to be single, it was necessary to be part of a couple in order to enjoy what the world had to offer.

Much of the book consists of the thoughts in their head. Reminding each other of how they met, how they fell in love, and the concern and frustration over what to expect, how to react, what to do in this next step of adulthood, the beginning of a marriage.

He's so eager and she's simply terrified. But they're both entirely too polite with each other. They haven't quite grasped the concept that they are going to be spending the rest of their lives together.

They've both had unusual upbringings, his mother was brain damaged and his father had to be both parents to his three young children and care taker to his wife. She had a cold, distant mother who certainly never took the time to talk to her daughter about something like sex. It is also hinted ever so slightly that she might have had an improper relationship with her father. But again, it could be the confusion of a child. (I've read Atonement by this same author, a book about lives ruined because of a child's confusion regarding sex.)

As I read this, I felt so much aching empathy for the female character. Because even in modern times, if a person doesn't know what to expect, if she's never been told, if she's having to gather second-hand information... It made me wonder how a man could write something so accurate with regard to a woman's feelings. I tend to not read books written by men, especially if they presume to understand women. But I continue to read work by McEwan because he does seem to understand his subject matter and he creates women that are real, and not the hysterical, over-emotive and/or cardboard characters created by most male writers. In this instance, I was especially impressed. A man who has such a strong understanding of the thoughts in a woman's head is quite rare.

It's a small, compact book. The action takes place in one night. Easy to read while laying out in the sun. Probably not considered a beach read, despite its title, but I did read it while sunning, all at once. Gave me a bit of a sunburn because I stayed outside a little too long. But I couldn't stop reading.

It's very sad. In the end, I found the story to be a cautionary tale about what happens when a person doesn't express his or her feelings. If these two people would have just told each other what was going on in their minds, then they probably would have had a good laugh, realizing they were on exactly the same page, and worked through their fears. They loved each other and that should count for something. But when pride stands in front of love, a person may retain their pride, but that might be all that is left.

It's a beautiful story, and as I've said in other reviews, I don't especially enjoy McEwan's books, but I think they are very well written. In this case, the writing was so powerful, I couldn't stop thinking about the book after I read it. I had to keep reminding myself that the characters were fictional and that it was silly to get so upset over what happened to them. When something sticks with you like that, that's the mark of excellent writing.

finished reading: August 1, 2007

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