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.
Upon reading this, the first paragraph of On Chesil Beach, I felt my brain click out of fiction-reader mode and into queer/fem-theorist mode. There was a bit of a hitch when I hit the “But it is never easy,” an interesting literary turn that implies a narrator with an opinion and a different stance in time than his (yes, his, for sure) characters. Mostly, though, I felt a spark of outrage and a weight around my waist—my old theoretical tool belt at the ready.
(Don’t worry, though—my old papers are nearly incomprehensible even to me at this point, so in this post I won’t be referencing Butler or Foucault or using any words that the spellcheck doesn’t recognize).
I have to say, I am pretty sure people were fucking, and talking about it quite a lot, in 1962 (let alone 1862, 1762…). Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and James Baldwin, just to name a very few famous sexual people, all made headlines that year. It’s not the historical moment, then, it’s these two people, McEwan’s characters, who are unique. In fiction, it’s good for your characters to be unique. I read on to find out what was so special about them.
It turns out, Florence is frigid. Call it fem theory bias, but that’s not real. I mean, when she got “hysterical” was her womb wandering, too? She hides her “frigidity” from her husband, Edward, who is, understandably, anxious to consummate their marriage. Their marriage night turns out to be an embarrassing, catastrophic disaster.
Why is Florence frigid? Well, maybe because her mother is super skinny and didn’t hug her enough. Maybe because she likes playing music too much, and is too good at it—with an independent talent like that, who needs a man? Or, we read time and again, she really enjoys the company of her college girlfriends. They are very affectionate with each other. Could she be a lesbian? Not in this narrative. If she doesn’t want to sleep with men, she clearly doesn’t want to sleep with anyone.
I am not a huge advocate of research in fiction—I think that if you want to write an imagined world, go for it. I can’t help but think that McEwan could have turned out a better book, though, had he spoken to a few women. Spending so much time in Florence’s head here, I just couldn’t find a trace of a plausible character in there. (Although, to be fair, I didn’t buy Edward either).
This is to say nothing of the structural problems I had with the book. Mostly it moves slowly, slowly, taking place all in one night with background information peppered in here and there. It does move admirably and seemlessly within those chapters between Florence and Edward’s points of view. The last chapter, though, covers the remainder of the couples’ lives after that night. I skimmed it. If McEwan was just going to give us a general sketch of what happened, I was just going to give it a general glance. The last McEwan book I read was Saturday, which took place over the course of one day and was a perfectly paced work of genius. How he went from there to here, I have no idea.
I think maybe what was supposed to happen is that I was supposed to see this as a story of failed connection, of impossible communication. But there was no earthly reason why these two couldn’t have communicated better. In the end, although the last paragraph would have been sad and lovely had it been the culmination of a different 200 pages, I couldn’t have cared less about how things turned out.