On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan

Genre: Fiction

Star Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Pages: 166

Opening Line:

“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.”

From that first sentence you can gather exactly what this book is about: a newly married couple who may well love one another, but despite this, are inexperienced when it comes to being intimate. I went into this book not knowing what it would be about, and when I read that line I knew it would be a book that I would read closely, so as not to miss a single word, phrase or meaning from it.

The way this is written is captivating in that you are, as the reader, brought into the lives of the newlyweds Edward and Florence, on their wedding night. This is traditionally a night spent between the husband and wife, with no-one else to disturb them. You are alone with that person after having just married them and the expectation is that you will consummate that marriage. The wedding night itself is set in July of 1962, and as the opening line tells us, neither Edward nor Florence have had a single sexual partner between them, but they are under pressure to change that with one another now that they are married.

The fact that a wedding night is supposed to be private makes you want to read on and keep having that insight into their relationship, their thoughts, and their feelings. I couldn’t help putting myself in Florence’s shoes and staying there. The story doesn’t stick to the wedding night, it flutters between that night and moments in their past: when they met, memories they shared, all the things that make them a couple apart from the fact they haven’t slept together. We switch perspectives between them both, finding out what their lives are like, and returning to the night in question. I would say the storytelling, for me, is near perfect because once you’ve been reading it a little while you become familiar with the structure and you know when you are going to return to that night. An expectation is created, and I felt a need to know more about them, but also to know what was going to happen.

There’s a suspense about when the inevitable will happen, and it is drawn out but not in a bad way. It was interesting to be let into what each of the characters were thinking but not saying, and if they had just spoken about how they felt, Florence especially, things might have been easier. I felt a natural affinity with Florence, because I’ve developed this idea of what a wedding night would be like, and when reading this I reacted as though I knew in my heart I would feel exactly the same as she does. A marriage, by law, is not officially a marriage until you consummate it. That is something I find scary, and it must have been a whole lot scarier during a time when you were expected to marry before ‘giving yourself’ to someone. You can be in a relationship, feel love, feel closeness, feel friendship, and feel like you know them, but then you marry and the expectation to take the next step looms over you, and what if it doesn’t feel right? Neither of you might want to, both of you might be aching to, or one might want to, the the other might not. These are the issues that are explored in this novel and it’s a subject I loved reading about and thinking about. I consumed this book in a different way to any other book because of my interest in the subject of marriage consummation and the circumstances that can affect how each partner feels and what the outcome of those feelings are.

I’m grateful Ian McEwan wrote this book, and I would love to find other books that focus in on this subject, but I don’t think they would live up to this one, purely for the way it is crafted, and the way the story is told. It isn’t trying to force what feelings are right or wrong, it simply presents us with a couple who find themselves together on their wedding night, and we are allowed to look in on them and watch to see what they do. It may be less than 200 pages long, but this little book has had a significant impact on me and the way I feel about wedding nights.

My final word: I was shocked at how it all turns out.

Favourite quotes:

“If only eating a sticky cherry was all that was required.”

“She retreated from him somehow without letting him ever feel in doubt about her love.”

“She was proposing what she knew he most wanted and she dreaded.”

“They would assume there was something wrong with her, and they would be right.”

Link to the book on Goodreads:

On Chesil Beach

© advocateofbooks

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