There have always been milestones used to suggest whether or not a person has reached maturity. At eighteen years old we’re considered old enough to fight for our country and help to determine its future by voting. At twenty-one we’re supposed to be mature enough to be responsible with substances like alcohol. But is there really any age or state we reach where we’re magically mature?
That’s the focus of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. Set in the 1960s, On Chesil Beach watches the awkward wedding night of young and inexperienced Edward and Florence. At a time when getting married was a mark of maturity, Edward and Florence wait for the moment when they’ll feel the change and begin to realize that it isn’t as easy as they thought.
Using flashbacks, McEwan gives insight into the characters’ personal histories and family life, demonstrating the atmosphere that helped to inspire and encourage their misconceptions. These glimpses of formative incidents are my favorite aspect of the book. They provide the perfect space for McEwan’s beautifully descriptive prose to reign.
One thing that Ian McEwan has mastered is capturing families held in an uncomfortable balance by dynamic tension. In this novel, that extends to the brief and chaste relationship of Edward and Florence. The reader is allowed more insight into the hopes, dreams, fears, and insecurities of Edward and Florence than they ever considered the other might possess.
On Chesil Beach is well-crafted, well-written, and well-developed, but I’m not sure I can say that I really enjoyed it most of the time while I was reading it. The characters’ interactions with one another felt more developed than the characters as individuals, making it hard to feel too much about them. They were vague enough to stand as general social symbols but that hinders the ability to attach to them on an emotional level. The plot was necessarily simple and understated.
As I approached the final pages, I was disappointed, underwhelmed. I hadn’t expected it to be as good as Atonement but I had expected there to be more and as the number of unread pages began to decrease, my belief in a satisfying resolution dwindled. But, of course, Ian McEwan’s planning and skill proved to be beyond my imaginary scope. What first appeared to be a quick wrap up of the loose ends turned out to have a far deeper meaning than I anticipated. In the last page and a half, the full message of the short novel presents itself and the reader cannot help but wonder about his or her own life.
I wouldn’t necessarily say that I enjoyed the novel, but in those final pages I definitely found a greater appreciation for it. And it helped me to pinpoint another aspect that McEwan has mastered: the unexpectedly satisfying conclusion. From the few works of his I have read, the endings are rarely what the reader expects or would have wanted, and yet, they fit better than a more predictable ending ever could. They’re not overdone or unrealistic. They simply hammer home the point McEwan was trying to make about life and leave the reader in a state of unexpected contemplation.