I 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.