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On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan.

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Title: On Chesil Beach.
Author: Ian McEwan.
Genre: Fiction, literature, romance.
Country: U.K.
Language: English.
Publication Date: 2007.
Summary: In 1962, Florence and Edward celebrate their wedding in a hotel on the Dorset coast. Yet as they dine, the expectation of their marital duties weighs over them. And unbeknownst to both, the decisions they make this night will resonate throughout their lives. When hopes, suppressed fears and traumas and desires to please and understand the one you love all come to a head, this is a story of lives transformed by a gesture not made, and a word not spoken.

My rating: 7.5/10.
My review:


♥ This was still the era—it would end later in that famous decade—when to be young was a social encumbrance, a mark of irrelevance, a faintly embarrassing condition for which marriage was the beginning of a cure. Almost strangers, they stood, strangely together, on a new pinnacle of existence, gleeful that their new status promised to promote them out of their endless youth—Edward and Florence, free at last!

♥ In his final year he had made a special study of the "great man" theory of history—was it really outmoded to believe that forceful individuals could shape national destiny? Certainly his tutor thought so: in his view History, properly capitalized, was driven forward by ineluctable forces toward inevitable, necessary ends, and soon the subject would be understood as a science. But the lives Edward examined in detain—Caesar, Charlemagne, Frederick the Second, Catherine the Great, Nelson and Napoleon (Stalin he dropped, at his tutor's insistence)—rather suggested the contrary. As ruthless personality, naked opportunism and luck, Edward had argued, could divert the fates of millions, a wayward conclusion that earned him a B minus, almost imperiling his first.

An incidental discovery was that even legendary success brought little happiness, only redoubled restlessness, gnawing ambition.

♥ It was in theory open to them to abandon their plates, seize the whine bottle by the neck and run down to the shore and kick their shoes off and exult in their liberty. There was no one in the hotel who would have wanted to stop them. They were adults at last, on holiday, free to do as they chose. In just a few years' time, that would be the kind of thing quite ordinary young people would do. But for now, the times held them. Even when Edward and Florence were alone, a thousand unacknowledged rules still applied. It was precisely because they were adults that they did not do childish things like walk away from a meal that others had taken pains to prepare. It was dinnertime, after all. And being childlike was not yet honorable, or in fashion.

♥ Edward's single most important contribution to the wedding arrangements was to refrain, for over a week. Not since he was twelve had he been so entirely chaste with himself. He wanted to be in top form for his bride. It was not easy, especially at night in bed, or in the mornings as he woke, or in the long afternoons, or in the hours before lunch, or after supper, during the hours before bed.

♥ Their courtship had been a pavane, a stately unfolding, bound by protocols never agreed or voiced but generally observed. Nothing was ever discussed—nor did they feel the lack of intimate talk. These were matters beyond words, beyond definition. The language and practice of therapy, the currency of feelings diligently shared, mutually analyzed, were not yet in general circulation. While one heard of wealthier people going in for psychoanalysis, it was not yet customary to regard oneself in everyday terms as an enigma, as an exercise in narrative history, or as a problem waiting to be solved.

♥ But no one under thirty—certainly not Edward and Florence—believed a British prime minister held much sway in global affairs. Every year the empire shrank as another few countries took their rightful independence. Now there was almost nothing left, and the world belonged to the Americans and the Russians. Britain, England, was a minor power—saying this gave a certain blasphemous pleasure. Downstairs, of course, they took a different view. Anyone over forty would have fought or suffered in the war and known death on an unusual scale, and would not have been able to believe that a drift into irrelevance was the reward for all the sacrifice.

..The Blimps, still fighting the last war, still nostalgic for its discipline and privations—their time was up. Edward and Florence's shared sense that one day soon the country would be transformed for the better, that youthful energies were pushing to escape, like steam under pressure, merged with the excitement of their own adventure together. The sixties was their first decade of adult life, and it surely belonged to them. The pipe smokers downstairs in their silver-buttoned blazers, with their double measures of Caol Ila and memories of campaigns in North Africa and Normandy and their cultivated remnants of army slang—they could have no claim on the future. Time, gentlemen, please!

♥ As always, Florence was adept at concealing her feelings from her family. It required no effort—she simply left the room, whenever it was possible to do so undemonstratively, and later was glad she had said nothing bitter or wounding to her parents or sister; otherwise she would be awake all night with her guilt. She constantly reminded herself how much she loved her family, trapping herself more effectively into silence. She knew very well that people fell out, even stormily, and then made up. But she did not know how to start—she simply did not have the trick of it, the row that cleared the air, and could never quite believe that hard words could be unsaid or forgotten. Best to keep things simple. She could only blame herself then, when she felt like a character in a newspaper cartoon, with steam hissing from her ears.

♥ She persuaded herself that her college results would help her make up her mind, and so, like Edward fifteen miles away in the wooded hills to the east, she passed her days in a form of anteroom, waiting fretfully for her life to begin.

♥ She turned back to him. "I was curious about you."

But it was even more abstract than that. At the time it did not even occur to her to satisfy her curiosity. She did not think they were about to meet, or that there was anything she should do to make that possible. It was as if her own curiosity had nothing to do with her—she was really the one who was missing from the room. Falling in love was revealing to her just how odd she was, how habitually sealed off in her everyday thoughts. Whenever Edward asked, How do you feel?, or, What are you thinking? she always made an awkward answer. Had it taken her this long to discover that she lacked some simple mental trick that everyone else had, a mechanism so ordinary that no one ever mentioned it, an immediate sensual connection to people and events, and to her own needs and desires? All these years she had lived in isolation within herself and, strangely, from herself, never wanting or daring to look back. In the stone-floored echoing hall with the heavy low beams, her problems with Edward were already present in those first few seconds, in their first exchange of looks.

♥ It never occurred to Edward to ask himself if she was happy. She certainly had her moments of anxiety, panicky attacks when her breathing came in snatches and her thin arms would rise and fall at her sides and all her attention was suddenly on her children, on a specific need she knew she must immediately address. Edward's fingernails were too long, she must mend a tear in a frock, the twins needed a bath. She would descend among them, fussing ineffectually, scolding, or hugging them to her, kissing their faces or doing all at once, making up for lost time. It almost felt like love, and they yielded to her happily enough. But they knew from experience that the realities of the household were forbidding—the nail scissors and matching thread would not be found, and to heat water for a bath needed hours of preparation. Soon their mother would drift away, back to her own world.

These fits may have been caused by some fragment of her former self trying to assert control, half recognizing the nature of her own condition, dimly recalling a precious existence and suddenly, terrifyingly, glimpsing the scale of her loss. But for most of the time Marjorie kept herself content with the notion, an elaborate fairy tale in fact, that she was a devoted wife and mother, that the house ran smoothly thanks to all her work and that she deserved a little time to herself when her duties were done. And in order to keep the bad moments to a minimum and not alarm that scrap of her former consciousness, Lionel and the children colluded in the make-believe. At the beginning of meals, she might lift her face from contemplating her husband's efforts and say sweetly as she brushed the straggly hair from her face, "I do hope you enjoy this. It's something new I wanted to try."

It was always something old, for Lionel's repertoire was narrow, but no one contradicted her, and ritually, at the end of every meal, the children and their father would thank her. It was a form of make-believe that was comforting for them all. When Marjorie announced that she was making a shopping list for Watlington market, or that she had more sheets to iron that she could begin to count, a parallel world of bright normality appeared within reach of the whole family. But the fantasy could be sustained only if it was not discussed. They grew up inside it, neutrally inhabiting its absurdities because they were never defined.

Somehow they protected her from the friends they brought home, just as they protected their friends from her. The accepted view locally—or this was all they ever heard—was that Mrs. Mayhew was artistic, eccentric and charming, probably a genius. It did not embarrass the children to hear their mother tell them things they knew could not be true. She did not have a busy day ahead, she had not really spent the entire afternoon making blackberry jam. These were not falsehoods, they were expressions of what their mother truly was, and they were bound to protect her—in silence.

♥ The train braked, possibly a little harder than usual, and the door swung out from this traveler's grasp. The heavy metal edge struck Marjorie Mayhew's forehead with sufficient force to fracture her skull and dislocate in an instant her personality, intelligence and memory.

♥ Of course, he had always known. He had been maintained in a state of innocence by the absence of a term for her condition. He had never even thought of her as having a condition, and at the same time had always accepted that she was different. The contradiction was now resolved by this simple naming, by the power of words to make the unseen visible. Brain-damaged. The term dissolved intimacy, it coolly measured his mother by a public standard that everyone could understand. A sudden space began to open out, not only between Edward and his mother, but also between himself and his immediate circumstances, and he felt his own being, the buried core of it he had never attended to before, come to sudden, hard-edged existence, a glowing pinpoint that he wanted no one else to know about. She was brain-damaged, and he was not. He was not his mother, nor was he his family, and one day he would leave, and would return only as a visitor. He imagined he was a visitor now, keeping his father company after a long absence overseas, gazing out with him across the field at the broad road of buttercups parting just before the land fell away in a gentle incline toward the woods. It was a lonely sensation he was experimenting with, and he felt guilty about it, but its boldness excited him too.

♥ These private schemes refined further his sense of a concealed self, a tight nexus of sensitivity, longing and hard-edged egotism. Unlike some of the boys at school, he did not loathe his home and family. He took for granted the small rooms and their squalor, and he remained unembarrassed by his mother. He was simply impatient for his life, the real story, to start, and the way things were arranged, it could not do so until he had passed his exams. So he worked hard and turned in good essays, especially for his history master. He was amiable enough with his sisters and parents, and he continued to dream of the day when he would leave the cottage at Turville Heath. But in a sense he already had.

♥ It is shaming sometimes, how the body will not, or cannot, lie about emotions. Who, for decorum's sake, has ever slowed his heart, or muted a blush?

♥ When she was a late-developing fourteen, in despair that all her friends had breasts while she still resembled a giant nine-year-old, she had a similar moment of revelation in front of the mirror the evening she first discerned and probed a novel tight swelling around her nipples. If her mother had not been preparing her Spinoza lecture on the floor below, Florence would have shouted in delight. It was undeniable: she was not a separate subspecies of the human race. In triumph, she belonged among the generality.

♥ He regarded his state of excitement, ignorance and indecision as dangerous because he did not trust himself. He was capable of behaving stupidly, even explosively. He was known to his university friends as one of those quiet types, prone to the occasional violent eruption. According to his father, his very early childhood had been marked by spectacular tantrums. Through his school years and into his time at college he was drawn now and then by the wild freedom of a fistfight. From schoolyard scraps around which savagely chanting kids formed a spectator ring, to a solemn rendezvous in a woodland clearing near the edge of the village, to shameless bawls outside central London pubs, Edward found in fighting a thrilling unpredictability, and discovered a spontaneous, decisive self that eluded him in the rest of his tranquil existence. He never sought out these situations, but when they arose, certain aspects—the taunting, the restraining friends, the squaring up, the sheer outrageousness of his opponent—were irresistible. Something like tunnel vision and deafness descended on him, and then suddenly he was back there again, stepping into a forgotten pleasure, as though emerging into a recurring dream. As in a student drinking bout, the pain came afterward. He was no great pugilist, but he had the useful gift of physical recklessness, and was well placed to raise the stakes. He was also strong.

♥ It took Edward some while into the evening to become aware of Harold Mather's lack of gratitude, and then of his silence, or silence toward him, and even longer, a day or two, to realize that his friend not only disapproved, but worse—he was embarrassed. In the pub neither man told their friends the story, and afterward Mather never spoke about the incident to Edward. Rebuke would have been a relief. Without making any great show of it, Mather withdrew from him. Though they saw each other in company, and he was never obviously distant toward Edward, the friendship was never the same. Edward was in agonies when he considered that Mather was actually repelled by his behaviour, but he did not have the courage to raise the subject. Besides, Mather made sure they were never alone together. At first, Edward believed that his error was to have damaged Mather's pride by witnessing his humiliation, which Edward then compounded by acting as his champion, demonstrating that he was tough while Mather was a vulnerable weakling. Later on, Edward realized that what he had done was simply not cool, and his shame was all the greater. Street fighting did not go with poetry and irony, bebop or history. He was guilty of a lapse of taste. He was not the person he had thought. What he believed was an interesting quirk, a rough virtue, turned out to be a vulgarity. He was a country boy, a provincial idiot who thought a bare-knuckle swipe could impress a friend. It was a mortifying reappraisal. He was making one of the advances typical of early adulthood: the discovery that there were new values by which he preferred to be judged. Since then, Edward had stayed out of fights.

♥ And what stood in their way? Their personalities and pasts, their ignorance and fear, timidity, squeamishness, lack of entitlement or experience or easy manners, then the tail end of a religious prohibition, their Englishness and class, and history itself. Nothing much at all.

♥ The bed squeaked mournfully when they moved, a reminder of other honeymoon couples who had passed through, all surely more adept than they were. He held down a sudden impulse to laugh at the idea of them, a solemn queue stretching out into the corridor, downstairs to reception, back through time. It was important not to think about them; comedy was an erotic poison.

♥ She had to know he was with her, on her side, and was not going to use her, that he was her friend and was kindly and tender. Otherwise it could all go wrong, in a very lonely way. She was dependent on him for this assurance, beyond love, and finally could not help herself issuing the inane command, "Tell me something."

♥ She put on her headband, and Edward, waiting for the session to begin, fell into a reverie, not only about sex with Florence but marriage, and family, and the daughter they might have. Surely it was a mark of his maturity to contemplate such things. Perhaps it was just a respectable variation of an old dream of being loved by more than one girl.

♥ When he suggested that she did not really "get" rock and roll and there was no reason why she should continue to try, she admitted that what she could not stand was the drumming. When the tunes were so elementary, mostly in simple four-four time, why this relentless thumping and crashing and clattering to keep time? What was the point, when there was already a rhythm guitar, and often a piano? If the musicians needed to hear the beats, why not get a metronome? What if the Ennismore Quartet took on a drummer? He kissed her and told her she was the squarest person in all of Western civilization.

"But you love me," she said.

"Therefore I love you."

♥ For half an hour she had been watching him as he marked out the far boundary. Loving him from a distance, she said when they kissed.

♥ What she was referring to was more fundamental than money, but she did not know how to say it. It was his tongue pushing deeper into her mouth, his hand going further under her skirt or blouse, his hand tugging hers toward his groin, a certain way he had of looking away from her and going silent. It was the brooding expectation of her giving more, and because she didn't, she was a disappointment for slowing everything down. Whatever new frontier she crossed, there was always another waiting for her. Every concession she made increased the demand, and then the disappointment. Even in their happiest moments, there was always the accusing shadow, the barely hidden gloom of his unfulfillment, looming like an alp, a form of perpetual sorrow which had been accepted by them both as her responsibility. She wanted to be in love and be herself. But to be herself, she had to say no all the time. And then she was no longer herself. She had been cast on the side of sickliness, as an opponent of normal life. It irritated her, the way he pursued her so quickly along the beach, when he should have given her time to herself. And what they had here, on the shores of the English Channel, was only a minor theme in the larger pattern. She could already see ahead. They would have this argument, they would make up, or half make up, she would be coaxed back to the room, and then the expectations would be laid on her again. And she would fail again. She could not breathe. Her marriage was eight hours old and each hour was a weight on her, all the heavier because she did not know how to describe these thoughts to him. So money would gave to do as the subject—in fact, it did perfectly well, because now was he roused.

♥ His anger stirred her own and she suddenly thought she understood their problem: they were too polite, too constrained, too timorous, they went around each other on tiptoes, murmuring, whispering, deferring, agreeing. They barely knew each other, and never could because of the blanket of companionable near-silence that smothered their differences and blinded them as much as it bound them. They had been frightened of ever disagreeing, and now his anger was setting her free. She wanted to hurt him, punish him in order to make herself distinct from him. It was such an unfamiliar impulse in her, toward the thrill of destruction, that she had no resistance against it. Her heart beat hard and she wanted to tell him that she hated him, and she was about to say these harsh and wonderful words that she had never uttered before in her life when he spoke first.

♥ How unfree she was, her life entangled with this strange person from a hamlet in the Chiltern Hills who knew the names of wildflowers and crops and all the medieval kings and popes. And how extraordinary it now seemed to her, that she had chosen this situation, this entanglement, for herself.

♥ "..And we can make our own rules too. It's because I know you love me that I can actually say this. What I mean, it's this—Edward, I love you, and we don't have to be like everyone, I mean, no one, no one at all... no one would know what we did or didn't do. We could be together, live together, and if you wanted, really wanted, that's to say, whenever it happened, and of course it would happen, I would understand, more than that, I'd want it, I would because I want you to be happy and free. I'd never be jealous, as long as I knew that you loved me. I would love you and play music, that's all I want to do in life. Honestly. I just want to be with you, look after you, be happy with you, and work with the quartet, and one day play something, something beautiful for you, like the Mozart, at the Wigmore Hall."

♥ The series of short history books and all thoughts of serious scholarship were behind him, though there was never any particular point when he made a firm decision about his future. Like poor Sir Robert Carey, he simply fell away from history to live snugly in the present.

♥ Occasionally, he would come to a forking of the paths deep in a beech wood and idly think that this was where she must ave paused to consult her map that morning in August, and he would imagine her vividly, only a few feet and forty years away, intent on finding him.

♥ When he thought of her, it rather amazed him, that he had let that girl with her violin go. Now, of course, he saw that her self-effacing proposal was quite irrelevant. All she had needed was the certainty of his love, and his reassurance that there was no hurry when a lifetime lay ahead of them. Love and patience—if only he had had them both at once—would surely have seen them both through. And then what unborn children might have had their chances, what young girl with a headband might have become his loved familiar? This is how the entire course of a life can be changed—by doing nothing. On Chesil Beach he could have called out to Florence, he could have gone after her. He did not know, or would not have cared to know, that as she ran away from him, certain in her distress that she was about to lose him, she had never loved him more, or more hopelessly, and that the sound of his voice would have been a deliverance, and she would have turned back. Instead, he stood in cold and righteous silence in the summer's dusk watching her hurry along the shore, the sound of her difficult progress lost to the breaking of small waves, until she was a blurred, receding point against the immense straight road of shingle gleaming in the pallid light.
Tags: 1950s in fiction, 1960s in fiction, 2000s, 20th century in fiction, 21st century - fiction, 3rd-person narrative, abuse (fiction), british - fiction, fiction, literature, mental health (fiction), music (fiction), novellas, romance, sexuality (fiction), social criticism (fiction)
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