When I started reading On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan, judging by the cover and
the summary on the back, I thought I would be dealing with a rather serious book.
Edward and Florence are a newly married couple in the early sixties who are waiting
on the night of their wedding for their first sexual encounter. Being both virgins and the
impossibility of speaking out their feelings turn the whole story into a disastrous ending.
Depressing, huh? Not at all, it is precisely the seriousness of McEwan’s writing what
made me roar with laughter:
“When they were alone one afternoon in late March . . . she let her hand rest briefly on,
or near, his penis. For less than fifteen seconds, in rising hope and ecstasy, he felt her
through two layers of fabric. As soon as she pulled away he knew he could bear it no
more. He asked her to marry him. He could not have known what it cost her to put a
hand – it was the back of her hand – in such a place.”
The main characters live “in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties
was plainly impossible.” Florence is so repressed by social conventions that she
has convinced herself that the idea of sex is merely… disgusting. Edward, in
the attempt to rationalise his sexual desire, is also prevented from “performing”
properly. Florence is convinced that she loves him, but how can you possibly love
someone if the mere thought of touch makes a plate of slimy worms not too bad
a choice? And Edward, well, it is an uncontrollable erection what impels him to
propose. The conversation which should have taken place at the beginning of the
relationship eventually takes place… far too late, when the hormones are in such a
state that it is impossible for them to make anything out of it.
On Chesil Beach makes us realize how much we owe to feminism and the sexual
revolution, sexual desire should not serve social expectations and it is a lesson that,
although not quite yet, we have learnt since -thank God for that- the pill arrived. No
fairy tales to be found in Ian McEwan’s long novella or short novel, but definitely
worth the read.