If there is a master of the novel in this 21st Century, by my reckoning it is McEwan. He of Atonement, Saturday, Amsterdam. And On Chesil Beach. On Chesil Beach, in 203 small pages, this tiny book deconstructs the first twenty-four hours of a marriage and traces the consequences of a great misunderstanding in the honeymoon bed. I believe it is a testament, ultimately, to the power of words, spoken and unspoken.
I love this book and have given it as a gift on occasion. It is a masterpiece.
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. But it is never easy.
Florence and Edward arrive at a hotel in Dorset, England in 1962. According to a postscript by the author, the hotel “just over a mile south of Abbotsbury, Dorset, occupying an elevated position in a field behind the beach parking lot — does not exist.”
How did they meet, and why were these lovers in a modern age so timid and innocent? They regarded themselves as too sophisticated to believe in destiny, but still, it remained a paradox to them that so momentous a meeting should have been accidental, so dependent on a hundred minor events and choices. What a terrifying possibility, that it might never have happened at all. And in the first rush of love, they often wondered at how nearly their paths had crossed during their early teens, when Edward descended occasionally from the remoteness of his squalid family home in the Chiltern Hills to visit Oxford. It was titillating to believe they must have brushed past each other at one of those famous, youthful city events, at St Giles’ Fair in the first week of September, or May Morning at dawn on the first of the month – a ridiculous and overrated ritual, they both agreed; or while renting a punt at the Cherwell Boat House – though Edward had only ever done it once; or, later in their teens, during illicit drinking at the Turl.
Florence is a virgin and admits she is a little scared. Edward, a bit more experienced, has been restraining himself from “self-abuse” for a week in order to prepare for his wedding night. This leads to a disaster. And even though Florence and Edward try to discuss the incident on the stone-filled Chesil Beach, their mutual lack of understanding undercuts their ability to resolve the situation.
Ian McEwan’s website actually has a 26 minute film version of the story with McEwan’s reading accompanying the visual images. http://www.ianmcewan.com/bib/books/chesil.html
McEwan provides the exact menu of the honeymoon dinner over which things begin to unravel for Florence and Edward.
A slice of melon decorated by a single glazed cherry
Potatoes of a bluish hue
A white wine from France — “it would not have crossed Edward’s mind to have ordered a red.”
I would serve honeydew melon slices wrapped in prosciutto, roast beef, roasted new potatoes and roasted brussels sprouts.
The top hits on British charts in 1962 included an amazing number of songs that fit the theme of this novel (and they are just some great songs anyway!):
I Can’t Stop Loving You, Ray Charles
The Locomotion, Little Eva
She’s Not You, Elvis Presley
Dream Baby, Roy Orbison
Stranger on the Shore, Mr. Acker Bilk (?)
The Young Ones, Cliff Richard
Breaking Up Is Hard To Do, Neil Sedaka
Twistin’ The Night Away, Sam Cooke
You Don’t Know Me, Ray Charles
The Party’s Over, Lonnie Donegan
The Wanderer, Dion
Edward: Jeremy Irvine (from War Horse)
Florence: Lily Cole