On Chesil Beach (Audio)

chesilbeachI know that what I’m about to say goes against the general consensus about Ian McEwan, but having sat in my car last night crying for a good long while after finishing this audiobook, I must confess that this is my favorite of the three Ian McEwan novels I’ve read. I liked Atonement quite a lot, but, for me, it did not have the emotional punch of this little book. (Saturday fizzled out entirely about halfway through.)

Set in 1962, On Chesil Beach tells the story of Edward and Florence’s wedding night. Both are virgins, and both are filled with anxiety that they are completely unprepared to talk about. McEwan describes the proceedings of the evening in excruciatingly awkward detail.

The moment-by-moment descriptions of the evening are interspersed with flashbacks to their courtship, and these flashbacks convinced me that these two really did have genuine love for each other and caused me to root for them to get past their awkwardness, to achieve the emotional and physical intimacy that seems just out of reach. Here is where On Chesil Beach surpassed Atonement in my mind. I was never entirely convinced that Robbie and Cecelia had potential for a lifetime commitment, but I believed in Florence and Edward; therefore, I was emotionally invested in their story in a way that I was not in Atonement.

Based on my limited experience with McEwan, I could certainly agree with those who consider Atonement his most accomplished novel. It has layers of complexity that On Chesil Beach lacks. But On Chesil Beach shows the incredible potential of the short novel to take a simple idea and give the reader an emotional punch in the gut.

The audio version is read by McEwan himself, and he does an excellent job. I’ve had the print copy on my shelf for over a year and only listened to the audio version because it was the most interesting-looking audiobook on the library shelves last week. I do, however, intend to keep the print copy and read it sometime to see if it has the same effect on me in print. It’s definitely rich enough to warrant revisiting, and it’s short enough that it would be perfect for a Saturday afternoon when you’re in the mood for a good cry.

On Chesil Beach was the winner of the 2008 Galaxy Book Award, making it my final read for the Book Awards II Challenge. It is also my 23rd book for the Countdown Challenge, leaving me with 22 to go.

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6 Responses to On Chesil Beach (Audio)

  1. kimbofo says:

    Great review. I read the book last year and very much enjoyed it, though I felt the novel could have been much longer, it kind of ended too abruptly for my liking.

    I, too, enjoyed Atonement, but I loved Saturday.

  2. Lightheaded says:

    I liked this book as well. And Atonement. And Amsterdam. And Cement Garden. Different levels of like (or let’s say adoration for McEwan) with the varying stories involved. I can imagine the response listening to this out loud. Must’ve been heartbreaking as hell.

    Haven’t picked up Saturday though but I have a copy screaming at me from the shelves :)

  3. adevotedreader says:

    I really enjoyed this when I read it last year, and like you I found it a wonderful example of the power of “the short novel to take a simple idea and give the reader an emotional punch in the gut.” It was my first read of McEwan’s work.

    Unfortunately, I then read Saturday which I though was overwritten, unlikely and with little to say I wanted to hear. I haven’t read anything else by him since, although I probably will try Atonement or Enduring Love once I’ve got rid of the nasty taste Saturday left in my mouth!

  4. Jenny says:

    I completely agree with your assessment of Atonement. I haven’t read On Chesil Beach, but I read Amsterdam, which is an absolute tiny jewel of a book. I would put it in the top 5 or 10 books I’ve ever read for perfection of prose. A stunner. But Saturday, Enduring Love… meh. I find him inconsistent, but I can’t stop reading him, since the few that are good are very, very good indeed.

  5. Teresa says:

    kimbofo: Wow, you’ve definitely gone against conventional wisdom in liking Saturday best! I don’t feel quite so unconventional in liking this one more than Atonement.

    Lightheaded: Heartbreaking as hell is right. Try listening to that final passage driving home from at 11:30 pm on a Friday night! I was lucky it was a short drive and I could sit a cry for a bit in my own parking lot.

    adevotedreader: I thought Saturday was great until about halfway through, when I realized I had stopped caring about anyone in it. Atonement is quite good. It didn’t have the impact on me that On Chesil Beach did, but I do think it may be the greater achievement.

    Jenny: It is a funny thing about Atonement. I enjoyed it, was completely immersed in it, and immediately got a copy of Saturday after finishing it, only to be disappointed. And by then I had forgotten how good Atonement was. On Chesil Beach, however, blew me away. Maybe McEwan is at his very best in these tiny little books. I’ll have to add Amsterdam to my list.

  6. Simon T says:

    I was fond of On Chesil Beach, but a book group discussion tore it apart and made me like it less! Saturday I didn’t think much of, and Atonement is my favourite. Since you liked OCB best, can I recommend Black Dogs by McEwan? Similar length and impact, I thought it very good.

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