On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

True love….. we imagine it to be the whisker away of problems, the smoother over of ruffles, the perfect bond that bears up under any pressure, a prettier and more emotional version of duct tape, if you will. In reality, it is a fragile concept, one which McEwan tears to shreds in his novel On Chesil Beach. I love it.

We meet our fairy tale couple on their honeymoon. The story is told through a series of flashbacks inserted into the tale of a wedding night shared by two people, obviously in love. Unfortunately, a combination of miscommunication, assumptions, and cultural conditioning leads to disaster. It’s 1962 in England and the newlyweds haven’t yet experienced the sexual liberation of the sixties and the free love of the seventies. They’ve never had sex themselves, nor have they been able to talk about it between them. He is concerned about coming too quickly, but aside from that is eager to experience this new coming together. She is not only concerned about the coming act, she is viscerally repelled by it. I would guess that she is either asexual or so thoroughly acculturated to sex as a disgusting act that she finds the idea repellent. The flashbacks tell the readers that these two truly are in love with each other and could have a happy future if they can get over this hurdle. The narrative unfolding in the marriage bed tells us that they will not.

Since his preparation for marriage was to abstain from masturbation for a week, we easily predict that his one fear becomes reality; he doesn’t even make it to penetration before his overexcitement causes him to ejaculate all over his new bride. Her revulsion, which she has carefully and painfully controlled until that moment, comes out all at once. In her terror, she races out of the room and onto the beach. She has been preparing for this moment for months, trying to ignore or overcome her gut reaction. She has come up with alternatives, she has prepared a plan, and when he finally follows her to the beach several hours later, she proposes that they live together as married but he pursues other women as he pleases. He, in his petulant anger over wounded pride, rejects the idea and the marriage is annulled. We follow only him through the short and uneventful rest of his life as he comes to regret his decision. Their lives are unusual only in that we have just read their story; careers are had, friends are made and lost, life is lived, and the end is quiet.

I have the benefit of a culture that may not understand sex but at least is engaged in dialogue about it. I can’t decide whether I feel more pity or anger towards him. He’s obviously misguided if he thinks that avoiding sexual release for a week will give him some advantage in his first sexual experience. He is obviously ill-prepared for the idea that someone might feel differently about sex than he does. His constant reinterpretation of her actions as those of a sexually advanced but coy individual is laughably naive, fury-inducingly presumptuous, and disastrously incorrect. We have insights into his character along the way that clue us into his thought process. His mother received a brain injury during his youth which made her a bit crazy in a scattered, loss of focus kind of way and when his father tells him of her injury, he incorporates this knowledge into his world as if it has always been there and he has always known. This tells us that this young man is not only capable of but prefers to believe he knows everything about everyone and has always known it. His interpretation of his bride’s recoil as an invitation fits perfectly with what we know of his inability to think of another before himself or acknowledge the possibility that he is wrong. Even his regrets in his old age aren’t for the pain he caused his once wife, but for the love he missed out on.

She, on the other hand, is confused and afraid. She has spent hours thinking of how to sublimate herself to her husband, how to please him, how to get herself so small, so insignificant that he might be happy. Her inability to beat her own aversion into submission is not her failing, it is the result of natural inclination shored up by years of shame, disgust, and unspoken expectations. Again, I am fortunate to have information, support, and an inclination towards exploration at my back to power my decisions, regardless of what they are. She is not so lucky, as are many women still. I feel for her. Her every effort was for someone else, her every thought for another and still she met rejection.

Overall, the book is well written. By the same author as Atonement and The Cement Garden, On Chesil Beach is poignant look into what it might be like to miss out on so much love and beauty because of fear, confusion, misinformation, anger, and lack of communication. How much better the world might be if none of those things existed.