On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan.
A relationship formalised when her stroking his penis elicits a marriage proposal from him ends on wedding night when her grasping his penis again makes him come all over her, sending her fleeing in revulsion first to the bathroom and then out of the hotel. She is frigid, Edward tells Florence, running after her. And when she tells him she loves him and that if he really wanted –- she doesn’t say what -– she would never be jealous as long as she knew he loved her, he spits out in cold fury: “You want me to go out with other women!…
“Do you realise how disgusting and ridiculous your idea is?”
Humiliated, Florence leaves the hotel the same night — and Edward doesn’t try to make up with her. Her parents set in motion a divorce on the grounds of non-consummation of marriage.
Unusual as it sounds, Ian McEwan brings this short novel to life with his exquisite prose, which verges on music and photography. He describes scenes and feelings vividly from the act of “self-pleasuring” — “a self-made spoonful, leaping clear of his body” — to the virgin Florence’s dread of any kind of physical intrusion. She does not like even French kissing, so when out of a sense of duty she starts foreplay with her newly-married husband, it ends in disaster. They have been engaged and fondled and kissed before, but they have never had sex.
This is England in 1962, memorably described by Philip Larkin in the poem Annus Horribilis:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP
Edward adores his beautiful wife, and she loves him too -– but she is not prepared for this. She has other interests. As a trained classical musician, she is engrossed in her music and her career and has had girlfriends, not boyfriends, before.
McEwan portrays the differences in class and background between Edward and Florence. He is a schoolmaster’s son, a grammar school boy, she is a businessman’s daughter who has had all the privileges.
Starting with the dinner the newlyweds have before they retire to bed with disastrous consequences, the author tells the story flashing back and forth between the past and the present showing the differences between the couple. In the process one gets a picture of early 1960s England.
A day in the life
The story is set almost entirely in a single day, jumping 40 years to the noughties -– the present decade -– in the last pages.
Edward, now in his 60s, looks back on his life and misses Florence, who has become a famous violinist leading her own quartet.
He has changed since he was shocked by her suggestion that he could go out with other women. He absorbed the spirit of sexual liberation that came in the late 1960s, had affairs with other women and went through another short-lived marriage. But he feels his life would have been far more rewarding had he listened to Florence and stuck with her.
The last two pages of the novel, filled with Edward’s regrets, are a meditation on the choices we make and their consequences, success and failure. The story ends on an elegiac note in McEwan’s beautiful prose:
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