Sunday, May 11, 2008

On Chesil Beach

Ian McEwan is one of my favorite writers, but thanks to negative reviews and the short length, I put off reading On Chesil Beach. Upon seeing it on the recommended shelf at the library, I took it home and read it an evening. While it doesn't stand up to some of his longer works, it delivers what I look for in McEwan's books, the intricate exploration of human emotion and relationships.

It is worth noting some of the reasons people dislike this book. This Guardian blog post nicely summarizes the main complaints. Set in early 60s English wedding night, McEwan made some anachronistic errors and many found the idea that this bridal couple could be so sexually inexperienced. To the first point, the book isn't historical fiction. It isn't supposed to immerse the reader in the era. To the second, the book does not seek to examine British society of that era, rather it uses the setting to show the terror of the wedding night for two people who don't really know each other.

McEwan ably depicts these two callow people who don't have the vocabulary or the assurance to express their feelings and find themselves making a series of bad decisions because they are too afraid or too unsure to do the right thing. There are a number of cliched elements, such as class differences, the possibility of abuse, in the story, but in the end, the story is worth reading to watch these two people try to connect. Our ironic generation doesn't do well with edifying stories of rectitude (aside, perhaps, from Goofus and Gallant,) I suppose we don't like to be told what to do. Instead we have stories which warn us about what not to do.

The most legitimate complaint is that this is a minor work. If you are expecting something with the depth of Atonement or the Innocent, you will be disappointed. If you want another tragic look at how people attempt to communicate with one another, then this will satisfy. And finally if you get cheesed off when an author says the Rolling Stones released a song earlier than in real life, maybe you should read a different book.

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