Thursday, August 25, 2011

CBRIII #12: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Reading Saturday was such an incredible and bewildering experience that I decided to pick up On Chesil Beach. Later, when I was talking Emily about it, she said the McEwan really specializes in the gut punch at the end of his books, and she is really not wrong.

Like Saturday, On Chesil Beach unfolds in real time. It is the wedding night of Florence and Edward and the book opens with them sitting awkwardly at dinner in their honeymoon suite while two waiters serve them their meal courses. Set in 1962 in England, Florence and Edward are both young and in love, but unable to openly express their feelings to each other. Edward, for example, comes from a poorer, more working-class family background, and throughout the book, he has to try and fold away his rashness from Florence so as not to push her further into her shell. Meanwhile, Florence is kind of uptight and closed-off, and though McEwan implies that it's due to her upbringing and the way a woman is the 60s is expected to act, Florence often wonders if there is something wrong with her.

All this, of course, leads to the question of sex. The young couple has never had sex, and McEwan goes so far to illustrate that Edward's marriage proposal to Florence came out of a desire to consummate their relationship. Though both individuals routinely profess love for each other, whether out loud or in their heads, there is a sense that neither knows very much about what goes on in their heads. McEwan's tightly-paced writing made me eager for them to just "do it already!" but it also inserted a feeling of doubt. At one point, Florence thought that "Sex with Edward could not be the summation of her joy, but was the price she must pay for it." I felt so sad for her because it's unnerving to me to have to marry someone and think that sex is the punishment in order to have be with someone you love. On the flip side of the coin, Edward is so excited to have her. He saw his sexual desire for her, but also feels that he one day cannot wait to have a young child with Florence. This thought, he took to be a sign of maturity, which is what prompted him to ask her to marry him.

I keep debating back and forth whether if I should have add a spoiler note on this review so that I can really discuss my feelings on it, but I think I am going to let the book stand on its own (without my own oh-so-important thoughts about the ending). While reading it, I kept anticipating for the next event and I was eager to learn more about Florence and Edward's upbringing and thought process. It's weird, and I can't tell whether if it's from McEwan's talent or if it's a result of the real-time type of plotting, but I did not think I was at all that invested with the characters until I got to the end. I barely identified with Florence, though I could understand her need and want to communicate with Edward, yet being unable to let the words form in her mouth. Meanwhile, I think I identified way too heavily with Edward, and McEwan's focus on him toward the end of the book absolutely killed me. The ending flashed by, compared to the slow (but not in a bad way) unfolding beginning, and I kept thinking, "No, this is too fast. Go back." McEwan managed to actually sneak up on my emotions and sucker-punch me in my metaphorical stomach, and the book ended up affecting me more than I thought it would (Funny how I keep saying that about all the books I read.)

I finished On Chesil Beach at a coffee shop, and after I was done, I felt so shell-shocked that I was actually in the real world. My heart was completely broken for Florence and Edward, and even as I tried to articulate my feelings later to someone who haven't read it, about why the book was so unbelievably heartbreaking, my words still were not able to fully form the sadness that came with the ending. It's a really simple story, really, but it left me thinking about it for days about the complex and nuanced role a person's gender can play into a loving relationship, but also how in the end, people often just live in their heads and if they were just able to properly articulate their feelings, they could possibly/maybe work their lives out.

1 comment:

Jen K said...

Great review! I loved this book. I remember wanting everything to work out for them so much, and thinking almost the whole time "explain that to him/her." So frustrating!