“This is how the entire course of a life can be changed by doing nothing.”
~On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan
For me, this is the penultimate sentence of this novella, a deeply affecting character study of a young English couple and the events that transpire during their wedding night on Chesil Beach in 1962. Edward and Florence come to their marriage deeply in love, yet with markedly different ideas about their physical relationship. Florence, a violinist and bit of a bluestocking, applies all her passionate feelings to her music, eschewing the idea of sex as not only bothersome but downright repulsive. Edward, on the other hand, a young man from a somewhat earthier background, is chomping at the bit to take full advantage of his new found marital privilege.
In the course of less than 200 pages (or about four hours of audio), the reader becomes immersed in the events of this evening – every detail is described with stultifying precision, from the horrible roast beef dinner they try to consume before repairing to the bedroom, to the agony of undressing and those first awkward advances. Throughout the evening, McEwan takes the reader back in time momentarily to reveal the circumstances of Florence and Edward’s lives, and the early days of their relationship. So, by the moment the deed is done (or, more accurately, is not done) the reader has a greater understanding of the psychological factors at work than does either of the bridal couple.
But back to that sentence…”This is how the entire course of a life can be changed by doing nothing.”
Most of the failure of this relationship lies in the failure of communication between this couple, their inability to articulate even the smallest bit of their fears or insecurities. McEwan implies that this is a function of their time in history, and to some extent, it is. After all, although 1962 was the eve of the sexual revolution, it was still mostly a time of repressed feelings and emotions. A time when men, especially in small English towns, wore ties every day, when women did not leave their college dormitories without signing out and returned promptly by curfew at 10:00 p.m.
But failure to communicate, failure to take action to alleviate the differences and disappointments in a relationship, can have conseqences just as devastating in 2008 as in 1962. “By doing nothing,” by not speaking, by not having patience, by not trying to understand…the course of ones life can be forever changed. As Florence and Edward prove with such heartbreaking clarity.
I hope it isn’t considered cheating, but I listened to this book rather than read it. The audio book was read by Mr. McEwan himself, and it’s a great incentive for me to hear the author’s voice reading his own words-I acutally love that. *smiles*
And I wasn’t disappointed, in either the reader or the writing.
In an interview at the end of the audiobook, McEwan talks about the reason he chose the novella format. He says he wanted the “compactness” of a book in “four acts,” such as you might see in a play or an opera. He wanted the reader to be able to experience it “in one sitting,” to be able to devour the story in its entirety, “before getting up for a cup of tea.”
Although I “read” this novella over the course of a few days commuting, I can clearly see how effective it would be read it all at once. For the reader is swept right into the events of this one night, a night which seems to last forever.
And yet in the last few pages, McEwan reveals a sweeping panorama that rushes the reader through the years ahead, demonstrating just how the course of Edward and Florence’s lives were changed “by doing nothing.”
On Chesil Beach is a complex, multi-faceted tale that packs volumes of story into relatively few pages. It’s masterfully written, and a marvelous example of the novella format at its best.
reviewed for The Novella Challenge
On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan
Unabridged audio book, read by the author
Includes an interview with the author