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3.7 out of 5 stars
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on 10 March 2015
It's true what they say, beautiful things do come in small packages. 'On Chesil Beach' is an exquisite little work of art of many layers. Unlike other readers, I am perfectly content with its size (easier to force on my students, they invariably grumble at the sight of large books!) Yes, the final pages do go on for a bit and seem disjointed from the rest (and scope) of the story, until the very, very end when we finally get it - and realize that every addition which seemed superfluous was in fact necessary. Although it's a heart-breaker, I will happily read it again and again.

'On Chesil Beach' does a fantastic job at transcending its time, at making a point which remains just as valid years and years later. Once we finish reading and start thinking, we realize this obviously is a sad story about lack of communication, NOT lack of sexual experience or lack of love as such. The 1960s setting, the virgin newlyweds and their tale, are here to subtly and masterfully develop an altogether different, much grander theme: the way we seem to avoid at all cost telling the truth about our own feelings, and the repercussions of such avoidance. Nothing to do with the 1960s; today we can all still relate to this, we're all still doing it in 2015 and we will be doing the same probably for generations to come - because we've been brought up in the 'stiff upper lip' tradition, or because we're afraid we'll to look foolish, or hurt the other person; or because we simply don't know how to communicate effectively. That's why, for me, 'On Chesil Beach' packs such a complex punch. It shows how easy it is to misunderstand and mis-communicate, even in the most loving of relationships (thus, by extension, it also questions the definition of love...) and how easy it is to fall into this trap even if you're otherwise very good with words, ie highly educated like the characters are. So the meanings we can extract from this book go way beyond the confines of its 1960s context and the story itself.

I won't even bother with praise for the superb structure, writing, psychological observation. Ian McEwan at his best.
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on 17 March 2008
This short book is a sensitive exploration of the consequences of thoughts not spoken and actions that are misunderstood. The fears and uncertainties at the centre of the novella might seem incomprehensible to younger readers, although deep down they may be as prevalent today as they were in the '50s and '60s.

As with all good short stories, the book is a snapshot of a few hours in the lives of its main characters, Florence and Edward. interspersed with flashbacks into their pasts, and how they met and fell in love. The writer alternates between viewpoints, so that the reader is privy to the build-up of misinterpretations that leads inexorably to the denouement. Such is Ian McEwan's skill as a writer that, despite so short an acquaintance with the young lovers, I really felt for them, and longed for something to release them from their tongue-tied misery and guide them to a happier conclusion.

McEwan is a master of the English language. His prose flows through the feelings and uncertainties of his characters, capturing every nuance of sensitivity. My only criticism is the last chapter. The book would perhaps have been stronger if the ending had been left in the air. The frenetic rush through another forty years left a feeling of breathlessness, although it did serve to underline the futility and waste that was all too avoidable - the hints and opportunities were there, but Florence and Edward were too young and naïve to realise their importance or the implications of ignoring them.

What remains after finishing the book is a sense of sadness and loss, but this is no deterrent to reading it. I loved it. Buy it and see what you think. Just don't expect a punchy story. Instead be prepared for a feast of sensitivities and emotions.
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on 27 March 2007
Ian McEwan has reached the status of a British John Updike or Philip Roth, where the publication of each new book is a notable event. It is an appropriate accolade for a writer who has matured from enfant terrible to elder statesman: from edgy stories of sexual irregularity and dramatic violence, to richer investigations of the social and psychological makeup of a people.

Chesil Beach in Dorset is famous to any geography student as being an example of the phenomenon of longshore drift, and drift of a sort is what McEwan's new book is about. It tells the story of Edward and Florence, and their first night of marriage in July 1962 (the year before "sexual intercourse began," as Philip Larkin told us), staying in a hotel near "Chesil Beach with its infinite shingle."

Both are virgins: Edward has first night nerves, and Florence worries that by marrying him she has brought on the physical intimacy she most fears. What McEwan does terribly well is to invigorate old staples that we thought we knew, such as Edward's reciting of political analysis to (as Alan Partridge would put it) `keep the wolf from the door,' which seems both fresh and funny.

Less successful are the pieces of the couple's past which McEwan gives us: the scenes set before they met seem particularly unnecessary, and have the air of having been spliced in later to fill the book out from story to novella. And there is a danger of imbalance, when the meticulously detailed account in the first nine-tenths of the book suddenly switches pace and rushes to a conclusion. Overall, On Chesil Beach is more Amsterdam than Atonement.

But at its best, McEwan's great achievement, here as in Saturday, is to make the reader feel that nothing could be more important, or urgent, right now than to read about whatever his chosen subject happens to be. In this case, he makes a vital cause out of a transitional period, for two anonymous young people, for a generation, and for a country; the era when "to be young was a social encumbrance, a mark of irrelevance, a faintly embarrassing condition for which marriage was the beginning of the cure," the time when "being childlike was not yet honourable, or in fashion."
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Having failed to connect with Ian McEwan's Saturday, I was in two minds about whether to bother with On Chesil Beach. All I can say is, I'm glad I did.

On Chesil Beach is a beautiful story about love and loss. I thought there was nothing new I could read about sex, but On Chesil Beach focuses on a 1962 pair of newlyweds, approaching their first night together with a mixture of fear and expectation. We learn that the couple barely know one another, and that marriage represents the traditional (but long forgotten) voyage of discovery for them. The couple are slightly anachronistic, perhaps, even in 1962; they know it. But their ignorance has a genuine charm and beauty to it.

Although both Edward and Florence had been to university in London, their backgrounds were different. Edward is from a humble background. He has never even slept in a hotel before and during the year of courtship, he has grown in experience and expectation. Florence is from a wealthy and intelligent home, but her family has embraced Edward with enthusiasm. Their marriage represents a time of great hope and joy.

And to add to the hope and joy, McEwan's language just drips from the page. There is barely a word out of place. He manages to combine effortless poetry with perfect lucidity. He controls the couple's emotions with delicate skill.

The novella as a whole is hard to fault. Being harsh, there is a moment of wavering and vacillation towards the end of Part 4 and start of Part 5 that sits a little awkwardly with the crystal clarity of the rest of the work, but ultimately it is a necessary price for the ultimate conclusion. And when that conclusion comes, it is so intense, so exquisite that it brings tears.

Can this win the Booker? My reservation is not in the quality of the work, but the quantity. It is short to the point of being an extended short story - a novella. This brevity means that character development is minimal - instead, we simply have an exploration of the characters as they find themselves on that single day in 1962. Please don't let that sound like damning with faint praise - it isn't. But I suspect that it might stand between McEwan and a second Booker Prize.
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on 13 February 2008
McEwan handles this tragic, doomed love affair beautifully: the awkwardness; the rapture; the misunderstanding; the fumbling; the devotion. Yet the final coda, telescoping 'the rest of their life' into seven pages, seems almost to be notes for a longer work that the author decided not to complete.
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on 6 May 2007
Funny how this brilliant author's lesser works draw the greatest praise. "Amsterdam" won the Booker Prize but who would honestly rate it among his best? Now comes Chesil Beach and the reviewers are falling over themselves to tell us how subtle and perfect it is. Sorry, Mr McEwan, the best I can say about this book is: work in progress released too soon.

You are better than this, way better. There are passages in the book that are sublimely written. But there are others that are like rough architectural drawings by comparison. And then you spring a denouement on us that is at first banal (I do not refer to the bed scene but all that follows) then poorly executed before a throwaway wrap-up (like a summary of a Tony Parsons novel)that suggests you were bored and dinner had been called.

You haven't even taken the trouble to check your facts. Non-consummation was a ground for annulment, not divorce. The car was an Austin A35. They were known for that A. And the first Beatles recordings didn't appear until late 1962 and their Chuck Berry covers were later. The Rolling Stones didn't have a recording contract in July 62. But these are niggles. Your reviewers would all be too young to appreciate them, just as they are too young to know what it was really like in 1962. I do and so do you. And what we both know is that is that people were then as they are now. Whether they were trying to live within the confines of their culture or straining at its boundaries they made the best sense they could not the worst, unless they were deranged. Until you twist their tales to meet the plot, these people are not deranged. If you wanted them to be, you should have started sooner.

There is a story here, more poignant and more of its time, about compromise and submission and resignation, and I cannot think of anyone who could have told it better. And I wish you had.
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on 18 January 2013
I adored this book. I read it maybe five years ago so I can't write about it in any detail other than to say it was wonderful - a glimpse of a bygone age, with beautiful characterisation which shows the effect of innocence and repression not so far removed from my youth that I can't identify with the agonies this couple shared. A measured, deep, intense love story that was very moving.
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on 29 April 2015
This carefully constructed novel told from the alternating viewpoints of the only two protagonists almost, almost catches the feel of the times. It would not have worked unless, as is the case, the female protagonist were not something of a type, a highly musical but otherwise limited young woman. I knew examples of the type way back in the era he describes, when the problem pages of young women's magazines regularly dealt with the question of whether it was okay to kiss a young man at the end of a first date, and if not on the first then when?, though those who wrote such enquiries were a dying breed even then. But if I hadn't known such types — even as late as the 70s one engaged couple I knew managed to live together, in separate bedrooms, in complete and undoubted chastity for a year before their marriage — I might have struggled to believe in their existence. But once having accepted the plausibility of the idea it is easy to believe the inner workings of the characters in the rich depth n which McEwan writes of them. This is the great strength and satisfaction of the book.
Where the book is less richly engaging is in the tiny wrong details of the time it is set in. For example, no young man sliding his hand up the leg f his
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on 27 March 2007
"On Chesil Beach" takes us into familiar territory as a husband and wife on their wedding night fumble their way through a difficult sexual initiation. The outcome is not a surprise, but those reading this novel should not be seeking the thrill of a roller-coaster plot. As so often, the devil is in the detail. Set at the beginning of the 1960s, before the sexual revolution had arrived to liberate contained libidos, the novel explores the poignancy of sexually disfunctional people whose minimal knowledge and experience of sex were inadequate preparation for the potential pitfalls of physical intimacy. McEwan displays a depth of psychological penetration that as a reader I found satisfying and reassuring. He has clearly imagined and reimagined the scenes of the novel until they are artistically coherent and authentic; and yet, at the same time, he is happy to leave areas of fruitful ambiguity over the contradictions and incoherence of human behaviour. The final section is one of the best-written passages of English prose that I have found in years. This is the first novel I have read in ages that has moved me to tears. Please read it.
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At the risk of being unpopular I would venture that this book didn't need to be published in hard back at a given price of £12.99. I have read, often more than once, everything written by Ian McEwan and always found something to catch my imagination and to think about long after the book was read. I have bought his books on publication, recommended his books, and felt really pleased at the coming of each new work. This time I felt a little cheated and depressed, the couple were both unlikeable and as others have pointed out, awkwardly named and unusual in their innocence even for the early 60's. It is a difficult read because I didn't really care what happened. The little spat that sealed the story was sparky and realistic but it was a brief firework in the very slow writing. Sorry! I wanted to love it and will perhaps read it again in case I have missed the particular beauty in the the phrases that other describe but for me - dare I say it - it was a case of The Emperor's New Clothes!
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