Summary and book reviews of On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

On Chesil Beach

A Novel

by Ian McEwan

On Chesil Beach
  • Critics' Opinion:

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  • First Published:
    Jun 2007, 208 pages
    Jun 2008, 224 pages

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Book Summary

A novel of remarkable depth and poignancy from one of the most acclaimed writers of our time.

It is July 1962. Florence is a talented musician who dreams of a career on the concert stage and of the perfect life she will create with Edward, an earnest young history student at University College of London, who unexpectedly wooed and won her heart. Newly married that morning, both virgins, Edward and Florence arrive at a hotel on the Dorset coast. At dinner in their rooms they struggle to suppress their worries about the wedding night to come. Edward, eager for rapture, frets over Florence’s response to his advances and nurses a private fear of failure, while Florence’s anxieties run deeper: she is overcome by sheer disgust at the idea of physical contact, but dreads disappointing her husband when they finally lie down together in the honeymoon suite.

Ian McEwan has caught with understanding and compassion the innocence of Edward and Florence at a time when marriage was presumed to be the outward sign of maturity and independence.On Chesil Beach is another masterwork from McEwan—a story of lives transformed by a gesture not made or a word not spoken.


They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy. They had just sat down to supper in a tiny sitting room on the first floor of a Georgian inn. In the next room, visible through the open door, was a four–poster bed, rather narrow, whose bedcover was pure white and stretched startlingly smooth, as though by no human hand. Edward did not mention that he had never stayed in a hotel before, whereas Florence, after many trips as a child with her father, was an old hand. Superficially, they were in fine spirits. Their wedding, at St. Mary’s, Oxford, had gone well; the service was decorous, the reception jolly, the send–off from school and college friends raucous and uplifting. Her parents had not condescended to his, as they had feared, and his mother had not significantly misbehaved, or completely forgotten the purpose of the ...

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About This Guide

Unfolding with the mesmerizing, deeply human storytelling that has made Ian McEwan one of the most beloved authors of his generation, On Chesil Beach captures one night and two lifetimes, wound into a stunning turning point. In taut yet poignantly written scenes, newlyweds Florence and Edward navigate their wedding night, coping with their greatest fears and wishes. The year is 1962; they have been steeped in a culture whose expectations for composure and maturity are high, with roles clearly defined and information about the mysteries of marriage—sexual or otherwise—rarely shared. As we watch husband and wife experience their first nuptial hours, On Chesil Beach illuminates the fragile dance ...
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BookBrowse Review


When they step into the bell jar of their hotel room Edward and Florence leave all extraneous influences outside, allowing us to microscopically examine the motivations and miscommunications of these two well meaning young people in a controlled atmosphere, in which every misstep is theirs alone and their future happiness might turn on something as spontaneous and irretrievable as a single gesture.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews

The New York Times - Jonathan Lethem

McEwan treats [the situation] with a boundless sympathy, one that enlists the reader even as it disguises the fact that this seeming novel of manners is as fundamentally a horror novel as any McEwan’s written, one that carries with it a David Cronenberg sensitivity to what McEwan calls “the secret affair between disgust and joy.”

The Boston Globe

Wrenching, funny, smart, and hugely gratifying in unexpected ways, On Chesil Beach packs a pretty good wallop of its own...On Chesil Beach is as merciful to its characters as it is merciless in its heartbreak. Their bruised pasts and querulous hopes unfold beautifully through the novel, almost destined to collide and then fade into the sorrow of real life.

Miami Herald

Momentous...On Chesil Beach builds a potent suspense swiftly, and McEwan details the couple's sexual encounter with unnerving precision. Such meticulousness underscores how a few moments can define a future, how difficult it is to lay ourselves bare, how human to flee from better destinies. Fortunately, though life is never easy, as the narrator reminds us, gorging ourselves on McEwan's impeccable prose is.

The Washington Post - Jonathan Yardley

McEwan's prose is as masterly as ever, here striking a remarkably subtle balance between detachment and sympathy, dry wit and deep compassion. It reaffirms my conviction that no one now writing in English surpasses or even matches McEwan's accomplishment.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. McEwan's flawless omniscient narration has a curious (and not unpleasantly condescending) fable-like quality...The story itself isn't arresting, but the narrator's journey through it is.

Booklist - Brad Hooper

Starred Review. Conventional in construction and realistic in its representation of addled psychology, the novel is ingenious for its limited but deeply resonant focus.

Scotsman on Sunday - Stuart Kelly

What seems ironic is that this kind of novel could well have been written, if not in 1962, then certainly by 1972. In its sepia sentimentality and hyperbolic prurience, McEwan's book manages not to reflect a bygone era, but to belong to one entirely. On Chesil Beach leaves the reader, like its two confused, disgusted and recriminating characters, utterly unfulfilled.

The Guardian - Natasha Walter

No, what matters is whether the novel works as fiction. And it does. Some of the prose in the passages away from the bedroom is more workaday than we have come to expect from McEwan, and lacks the panache of his recent work. The exploration of Florence's love of music, particularly, never quite flares into life. Yet within the bedroom this couple's hesitant attempts at intimacy are nuanced and delicately realised.

The Independent - Justin Cartwright

I can't reveal more of the plot, because it all hinges on this wedding night. But it is a fine book, homing in with devastating precision on a kind of Englishness which McEwan understands better than any other living writer, the Englishness of deceit, evasion, repression and regret.

Reader Reviews


The only book that broke my heart when reading, it's absolutely stunning the way the characters are driven to the tragedy!


Also wondering
I also felt there is room for finding subtle references to possible incest from Florence's father - perhaps on the sea voyage -- though I would have expected this to be dealt with in the conclusion. So, I am still wondering ...

J. Arnold

A Modern Greek Tragedy
McEwan's On Chesil Beach is a wonderful story of expectations, maturity, communication, and lost chances. At the same time, the hero (if that is what he is?), Edward, is tragic. Whether he has been "tricked" into his marriage with Florence or whether...   Read More


Although I'm a big McEwan fan, I wasn't sure, after reading a few reviews, that I would enjoy On Chesil Beach. How much could one write about a single night, even a failed wedding night? Plus the reviews tended to focus only on the awkwardness of ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Selected Events from the early 1960s (from a British perspective)

Penguin Books put on trial under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act for publishing Lady Chatterley's Lover (30 years after it had first been published in Italy). They are found not guilty and the prosecution is widely ridiculed as being out of touch with changing social norms when the chief prosecutor asks if it were the kind of book "you would wish your wife or servants to read".

"The Pill" becomes the ...

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