It’s 1962, and England is in the midst of losing its status as the center of the world to America and Russia. The dashing young President Kennedy shines his influence across the ocean and youth and exuberance are the coin of the day. The Pill is emerging in polite society, but just barely. On Chesil Beach, however, innocence prevails. Two young newlyweds are facing the daunting prospect of consummating their marriage. Both are virgins, and both are anxious about the impending event for their own reasons. Edward, apparently having experienced some degree of fooling around, is worried that he will again be overexcited and disappoint his bride (and embarrass himself) by arriving too soon as they say. Edward’s fears are the normal jitters of a naive virgin – you know there is an act to perform but you aren’t quite sure how to go about it.
Florence, on the other hand, has a real dread and disgust for what she knows of the sexual act. She loves the idea of being pregnant by Edward, but the act of becoming that way seems thoroughly offensive to her. Florence’s only frame of reference is a handbook for young brides that uses the terms engorged and penetration quite often, which sounds painful and uncomfortable and makes her not at all look forward to a lifetime of this activity. Florence’s mother is not open to a more enlightening discussion, her sister is too young, and her friends are too gossipy to ask. As author Ian McEwan writes, “…her whole being was in revolt against a prospect of entanglement and flesh; her composure and essential happiness were about to be violated.” Florence wants a life with Edward, but sex with him would not be “the summation of her joy, but was the price she must pay for it.”
Of course, neither has expressed their fears to the other. Especially not Florence, who was certainly okay with the engagement, the wedding, the excitement of married life…but not actual sex. This was never a conversation she had with Edward. As far as he’s concerned, she’s a nervous bride and he mistakes her rising nausea at the thought of consummation as her excitement for the unknown act to come. So, what’s a young, newly married couple to do?
It’s hard to imagine in this day and age when everything (and I mean everything) is exposed in film, television and reality shows. To go back to a time of such innocence in the first few pages of this book is both refreshing and cringe-worthy. You feel for the unenlightened couple, but it’s also sweet that they still have the most intimate things to discover about each other.
The book as a whole takes place on this wedding night. The nervousness and apprehension are interwoven with both their own thoughts and the memories of how the two met and courted. You see the signs, the two people who love each other but maybe love the idea of each other more. Edward, the history major, is truly smitten with Florence; the only thing Florence is truly passionate about is her music. While Florence loves Edward, her emotion is more familial. Not exactly what a young groom hopes from his bride.
McEwan hints at reasons for Florence’s revulsion, and the early 1960s are before the height of psychoanalysis, which Florence even mentions she might need at one point in the book. The “Will they or won’t they” question lingers in the air throughout the book and the ending still leaves me pondering the decisions made by the couple. I’m including a review from The Guardian here that I really enjoyed.
Since this is a ‘book to movie’ selection, I’ll give you my quick thoughts on the film. Not everything translates well to the big screen. The book immerses you into the conversations and minds of Florence and Edward, making the short novel a more intimate experience than you get from watching the film. While well acted, the film is just this side of boring. The inevitable changes that ruin most book to movie adaptations are there, of course, and it doesn’t help endear the movie to the audience. I can’t say a lot more about it without giving away the book plots, but it’s at least worth a look after you read the book!