On Chesil Beach is another smart McEwan novel about typically British repression and how love needs action. It asks questions such as: how reasonable should we be in love? And what expectations should we have of our spouses? That we experience in the book a couple genuinely in love makes their conflict all the more arduous.
McEwan draws an engaging picture of two British intellectuals, both class-ridden (with the women higher) and both conscious of it. The story depends upon this consciousness, especially in the frequent flashbacks that track the growing authenticity of their love. By the end we are left with a simple love story about two opposing souls, albeit one that is terribly awkward and Peep-Showesque: McEwan handles the tension between what is said and what is thought tremendously well.
Being McEwan, the story enjoys its starkly dark side. There are hints of possible parental abuse, or at least erotic dysfunction in one character that is never fully revealed. These desperate signposts sometimes melt into the mundane bliss of their courtship flashbacks, but such candid material still punctures our expectations (and theirs).
Typical of McEwan (see Atonement’s first 200 pages), he is an expert of propelling forward movement with little plot. His flashes of figurative language are deft, avoiding romantic sentimentality. As we are drawn into the inner-lives and pasts of our two lovers, we enjoy a range of subtle and effective ways of revealing information, making them seem human and flawed but with still with a quiet dignity.
Ultimately this made me especially sympathetic to these characters. Their fear of her expectation and the humiliation of his hope resonate discordantly in the final event on the beach. Although others contested the ending, I enjoyed it: a brief tapestry on how lives can grow so different from one momentuous decision.
Worth the re-read and with a message that stays, so a firm four stars for me.