Friday, January 20, 2012

On Chesil Beach, Or: How I Came to Forgive Mr. McEwan

I haven't formally blogged about Atonement--mostly because I read it 4 years ago and wasn't book-blogging at that point--but I have made a few comments here and there about the bitterness it caused me to cultivate against Ian McEwan.  I liked Atonement, until the end (I won't get into details, but it made me feel that the author was aiming derision towards the reader that completely turned me off) at which point I swore I was no longer interested in reading anything else by the author.

Of course, he's an author that pops up fairly regularly in my Google Reader.  Technically, I'm supposed to like him, you see.  He writes the kind of stuff I like to read about in a style of writing I enjoy.  There was just this grudge thing getting in the way.

So when Sam talked about On Chesil Beach, and how it was pretty much wonderful, & recommended to anyone who has ever felt awkward, (love that! Who hasn't felt awkward?  Just typing awkward is awkward.) I decided I'd be magnanimous and give McEwan another chance**.  

On Chesil Beach is a small book... The-Best-Presents-Come-in-Small-Packages sort of small, and Wow--what a read*.  It's rare to find an author with the ability to so perfectly put you inside the thoughts and emotions of a couple with seemingly simple language (reminded me of Revolutionary Road in that sense).  Florence and Edward, a couple confined by their own sense of politeness, are engaged and married in the early 1960s.  Now, I haven't been to London in the 1960s, and I haven't been British, but I have experienced the awkwardness of a relationship suffering from lack of communication.  Who hasn't?
"And what stood in their way? Their personalities and pasts, their ignorance and fear, timidity, squeamishness, lack of entitlement or experience or easy manners, then the tail end of a religious prohibition, their Englishness and class, and history itself. Nothing much at all."
I loved how McEwan sped up and slowed down the passing of time, as well as how he sort of zoomed in and out of the details, showing the big picture as well.  I cringed through their wedding night, reminisced about their childhoods, got to know their families, and cried (yep, actual tears) upon looking back on what might have been.  How did McEwan manage to see so much depth in these two characters, and then--on top of that--relate the whole thing in such a small amount of print?  Color me impressed.

*Mr. McEwan, please accept my apologies for having held a grudge against you for so long.

**Sam, thanks for a great recommendation!

(By the way, this one is best saved for a time when you can immerse yourself in the story--reading the first half in bits and pieces didn't work so well for me.)  (Also, this book counts for my Wishlist Challenge! Yay me!)


  1. HAPPY DANCE!!! This is one of my all-time faves. I wrote about it when I had a column at Bibliobuffet and boy did I gush. Listened to it on audio, and McEwan read it. The awkwardness was palpable. Really uncomfortable but BRILLIANT. Glad this one was a success for you.

  2. I enjoyed both books. Chesil was so short yet so well developed.

  3. I didn't read Atonement but I saw the movie and thought it was a strange story.

  4. I love McEwan, but haven't read On Chesil Beach. If it convinced you, it's sure to convince me since I'm already a fan! So glad you liked it.

  5. I cried too and I just wanted to shake the characters because I'm sure they could have been happy together!

    I'm thrilled that you read this and enjoyed it, although I am a bit hesitant now to read Atonement myself...

  6. Andi, I agree--uncomfortable but Brilliant. Probably would have been a solid 5 star read for me if it weren't for the Atonement hangover clouding the first half. I'm starting to understand why he's such a respected author.

    Ti, I loved Atonement for the most part, but how the ending was written just spoiled it all for me. Perhaps I'd think differently if I read it now...but I don't think I'll be giving it another try. ;)

    Ann, they did a good job of following the book I thought...I liked the movie more because I felt like they told the ending with a neutral voice instead of the meanness I felt in the book. :(

    Brooke, I'm sure you'll love it! What's your favorite of his so far?

    Sam, seeing the rest of their lives in such a big-picture view really made it so much more devastating. It's a beautiful book...quite different from Atonement in many ways actually. Still, I don't think my reaction to his tone at the end of Atonement is a widespread one. You'll probably read it and wonder what on earth I was complaining about. ;)

  7. The only McEwan I've read is Atonement, and I loved it - even (maybe especially) the ending. From how you've described this one, it seems rather similar. Hopefully I'll like it just as much!

  8. Yay! This was one of my favorites last year. Sam's review convinced me to finally pick it up, too. Your recommendation for finding a time to devote full attention to the story is spot on. I put it aside after 50 pages when I really couldn't focus, then picked it up the following week and read it straight through... it makes a huge difference!

  9. Awkward... now there's a category I fit into. Haha. I have been wanting to try Ian McEwan but have been intimidated, so maybe this bite-sized book will be a good intro for me. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  10. Also loved this one and I'm curious to see how they'll adapted to the cinema.

    Atonement is on my Top 5 of All-Time list, but I can see where you're coming from with the ending. My problem with McEwan is that I've read others by him and never really got the same "in-awe" feeling Chesil Beach and Atonement gave me. I actually never finished Solar, although I sort of enjoyed Saturday and Enduring Love.

  11. I have a weird little thing against McEwen too, but it's probably not fair since I haven't even read any of his books. Maybe, like you, I should give him a chance.

  12. MJ, I think I'm in a pretty small group when it comes to Atonement! I must say that in both of these books the ending did have a big impact on my overall opinion...I'm sure you'll love Chesil.

    JoAnn, when I saw your review I knew I had to get to it sooner rather than later. As luck would have it, when I went to my local used book store in an attempt to splurge, this was the only thing calling my name. :)

    L.L., I don't think there's any need to be intimidated by McEwan--he seems to have a pretty straightforward writing style--but smaller is always better when you just aren't sure, right? And this one is a great one!

    Alex, they're adapting it to film? Didn't know that! That'll be interesting to see how they pull it off. Really interesting about your response to McEwan's other books. I was wondering how my experiences fit in.

    Ingrid! That's way too enticing of a tidbit--you can't just leave it at that! :) Must know how your bias developed! In any case, Chesil would be the one to prove/disprove your theory. :)


I'd love to hear what you have to say, leave a comment!