I feel like the last person in the universe to read this one: I was turned off by the topic and besides I usually end up really angry with McEwan after I’ve finished one of his books, partly because I resent his “formula” of violence intruding into the lives of interesting people which has seemed to me not all that different from the series mystery writer who writes the same story over and over again. I’ve always admitted, though, that McEwan is a talented writer and that his books do get better and better. Although I haven’t read all his early books, my sense is that McEwan began to break out of the violence intruding pattern with Amsterdam. That book however really irritated me because it was clear early on what would happen—and when it did I was furious. Atonement I liked until I came to the end. There I was furious that he’d left us completely unprepared for Briony as novelist at the end—I’ve been meaning to reread it but haven’t. Still I think what irritated me so much is that McEwan couldn’t let go of his “surprise” technique—and he butchered his excellent novel trying to include it. Saturday seemed to me negligible as a novel—some interesting writing but back to the old violence intruding technique he’s so good at.
On Chesil Beach is a departure. No violence intruding from the outside. There is a surprise—though like most people I knew what it was before I started—and it was also not an intrusion from outside the lives of the characters, but a “bomb” contained in their relationship. I found it extreme but believable, possibly because while not British, I was born within a year of the characters and was also married at 22 in the early Sixties (one difference: the pill was available in the US in 1963 when I was married, though you could only get it if you were married). I had almost forgotten how different were attitudes toward sex.
Once I began reading, I was no longer “turned off by the topic”. Actually I couldn’t put the book down and read until 2AM to finish it. I was fascinated by the characters and interested in their backgrounds. I found the encounter in the wedding night hotel far more effective than I expected. If anything was wrong, it was the trailing off at the end. It is believable (though unlikely) that a couple could separate on their wedding night and never meet again. I was surprised, though, that the final chapter focused almost exclusively on Edward and attributed his scattered talents to the breakup with Florence. His unsuccessful relationships—clearly that’s a result we’re prepared for, but why did he not succeed academically without Florence?
The only detail from Florence’s point of view at the end is the fact that she looked for Edward in the seat where he promised to be when her quartet first performed at Wigmore Hall—though perhaps that detail tells us all we need to know about her afterlife: she followed her musical star successfully but never succeeded with a relationship. But was it a failure of nerve that McEwan didn’t get into her head at the end as he did early in the novel?