I am a long-time fan of Ian McEwan and always look forward to his new books. This one is sterling and lives up to his best works.
Fiona Maye is a judge in London's family court. She oversees cases that deal primarily with children though she also handles divorce cases. As the book opens, Fiona is returning from a day at work and has just had a horrifying conversation with her husband Jack, a professor of ancient history. They have been married for 35 years and Jack has decided that he wants to have an affair though he still loves Fiona. He feels like his sexual needs have not been met by Fiona and there is a woman he is interested in. For him, it will be a last-ditch effort to find passion at the age of 60. For Fiona, age 59, if he goes through with this, it will be the end of their marriage.
The novel examines the family court system and Fiona's role in it. She is especially involved in a particular case where a 17 year-old boy (almost 18) is refusing a blood transfusion that is essential to save his life. He and his family are Jehovah Witnesses and transfusing blood goes against their religion. The boy, Adam Henry, says that he agrees with his parents and the church elders - he does not want a transfusion. The doctors say that the transfusion is necessary because Adam has leukemia and without this transfusion he will die a very painful death. Fiona is to decide this case.
The reader goes though time with Fiona as she works on her cases and worries about her marriage with Jack. Will it survive or will it be like some of the miserable divorce cases that she proceeds over? She believes that she can do her job well despite her personal concerns.
The novel gets its name from Section 1(A), The Children Act, 1989, which states that "When a court determines any question with respect to . . . the upbringing of a child . . . the child's welfare shall be the court's paramount consideration." Mr. McEwan does an excellent job of showing how Fiona brings this act to life though her actions on the bench. This book gives the reader a lot to think about, mull over and absorb.
McEwan is SUCH an elegant writer; no unnecessary word or phrase in sight. His latest novel, "The Children Act" is no exception. For those readers who worship at the altar of extraordinarily beautiful prose this work is a must read.
Other reviewers have summarized the plot vey well; we are focused on High Court Judge Fiona Maye at a particularly difficult period in her life. As a reader who is also staring into the abyss of what it means to be a middle aged woman in today's world, I related to Fiona's questioning of all her choices over the years that brought her to where she is. And then Fiona makes a professional decision, not lightly, that reverberates in her life like a hand grenade has been tossed in. How does she react to the consequences? How to respond represents another decision, but it's a personal one, not professional this time. More consequences.
What should Fiona have done? Which decisions in her life cost her the most? Novels like this cause the reader to ask: What would I have done? And what HAVE I done in my life that I would do differently if the consequences had been known to me before hand?
Engrossing, thought-provoking, and beautifully written.
In this taut, meticulously assembled novel, there is a guaranteed central theme of our fragility and an absence of triumph if we disrupt the truths of someone else. We meet Fiona Maye on the first page; she is a British High Court Judge in the Family Division. At fifty-nine years old, she has worked hard to attain her stature and her decisions are painstakingly analyzed; she reviews her prose countless times before presenting final decisions. She is fully aware she is changing lives, hopefully resolving violent or prosaic problems with her artful talent.
She is childless, never seemed to fit in the time to start a family although she is married to Jack for 35 years. Ironically, Fiona is blindsided at the onset of the novel when Jack tells her that he wants a passionate affair before he "drops dead" and yet wants to stay married to Fiona. Enraged, Fiona tells him to she would never accept the situation. Her anger is immediate and yet she tries to compose herself to meet the next few days in Court with her usual precision and deference to the law.
Fiona goes about the business at hand. Her emotions run the gamut from anger to heart breaking. She checks her e-mail looking for some communication from Jack but immediately changes the locks on their home.
She must concentrate and act as if nothing is wrong. She is a composed, thoughtful intellectual who commands respect and appreciates the beauty of England's environment. She is scheduled to make a decision on life or death for Adam Henry, who is just shy of 18 years old. He is in the late stage of leukemia, needing blood transfusions as advised by the doctors. He and his parents are Jehovah's Witnesses and religious principles forbid transfusions. The hospital has petitioned to the Court to save the child. Fiona must decide. The Court scene is fascinating as Fiona, aka My Lady, hears the doctors, lawyers, barrister and the boy's parents. She is unsure and decides to visit Adam as he lay dying. She finds a brilliant young man with strong beliefs and is impressed with his continued interest in learning the arts; Fiona becomes the audience to his poetry and a short violin performance for her alone. Adam and the Judge seem to be intoxicated with each other.
She makes her decision regarding the case, and then McEwan provides us with unique letters and scenes to learn the aftermath of that decision. The novel is enthralling. McEwan becomes a master at legalese and takes us through some of her other decisions and thought processes. We are subject to the passions and ethics of the distinguished judge. Every sentence was crafted with purpose of sharp divisions between the emotional fate of a child and righteous judgment. This book reminds me of English classes when the Professor would analyze every sentence, providing us with an author's possible intent or technique. Words were not wasted, a perfect book
This novel focuses on some decisions (and the repercussions) made by a High Court judge while she is also experiencing some major turmoil in her own domestic life.
The "welfare" of children is always a moral and lofty goal, but who knows best how that might be achieved? The people of London bring forth their marital and family woes to be adjudicated by the highest court. One judge, Fiona Maye, is also mandated to arbitrate cases involving medical issues such as the separation of conjoined twins and the question of whether or not a boy with leukemia should be forced to receive a blood transfusion even though he and his parents are avowed Jehovah Witness who abhor the therapy.
To my mind, Fiona is a cold fish and I could not understand her personality nor her reaction to the dilemmas in her life -- not to say I didn't feel empathy for her, it's just that her responses weren't anything like my own would likely have been. When confronted by her husband wanting an "open marriage" because their sex life is nonexistent, her reaction is to run away from any meaningful discussion with him and passive aggressively deal with the situation by changing the locks. Meanwhile, her attention is focused on the case of Adam Henry -- a nearly 18 year old boy who needs a blood transfusion. I confess, as a nurse, that this prohibition makes me want to lead the charge to court. On the other hand, I totally support freedom of religion and personal choice. Fiona decides to meet with the boy before making her ruling. The legal arguments described herein were brilliant. Unfortunately, she sets in motion a chain of events that result in an outcome that was not entirely anticipated. As any student of psychology knows, you can't take away a defense mechanism or a crutch without providing something else to hold onto.
The reason I gave this only 3 stars is partly because of the digressions in wholly uninteresting LONG sidebars related to music (Fiona is an amateur pianist) and, though I enjoy music myself and have a truly modest talent, these descriptions added nothing to the plot line and were in fact, to me, beside the point. I wanted to know more about the case that sort of derailed Fiona and that insight was sorely lacking. We know what happened, but since Fiona is so distancing of her own emotions, the reader never fully appreciates how her court-related decisions really affect her. The ending is rather abrupt and, while we might admire her honesty, Fiona never clicks as any sort of woman we might want to know or befriend. She lacks a certain inability for insight into her own motives and feelings, and I judged her lacking because of that. I have read this author before and have previously felt frustration with his characterizations. Despite all this, the story is a good one and would make a great book club selection for discussion.
Thank you to the publisher for the ARC to review.
on December 13, 2014
The backbone of this novel is a typical medical ethics issue of the sort we used to discuss and analyze in medical ethics class. (I taught medical ethics for years at a small university.) No doubt it is interesting and well developed by McEwan, but you could just as easily read an article or articles about such cases. Many are available. Do you really want a pretty basic undergrad lesson in philosophy in your fiction reading? I don't.
This novel is not nearly as gripping, engaging, or worthwhile as his earlier great ones--Enduring Love, Atonement, Amsterdam, and perhaps a couple of others. There's no doubt that McEwan is in a slump. In my opinion Solar and Sweet Tooth are second-rate, and so is The Children Act.
I also want to mention that McEwan indulges in cheap gimmicks in his writing in this novel. For example, he's now given to using lots of sentence fragments. Like this. Also the omniscient narrator at points keeps the reader in suspense. I always before appreciated McEwan's writing. He has the ability to write good, clear, simple, correct English prose and tell a tale without a lot of gimmicks. I wish he'd get back to that.
Two nice things about The Children Act: McEwan is very good at catching the spirit of London. This novel is centered around the law courts--The Inns of Court--an area of London I have not been familiar with. Also interwoven in the story is the lovely simple Irish tune The Sally Gardens. One of my favorites. (Opps sorry for the sentence fragment.) I like to play it on my Irish tin whistle.
Added Jan 6, 2014: Here's a real case that is interestingly similar to Adams's.
Fiona Maye loves to listen to jazz, but however proficient she is at playing Mahler or Debussy, she can't learn to play jazz: "No pulse, no instinct for syncopation, no freedom, her fingers numbly obedient to the time signature and notes as written. That was why she was studying law ... Respect for the rules." That respect for rules, for precedent -- and an ability to appreciate how they can be interpreted in the interests of her clients in the cases that she handles -- have catapulted her to the peak of her profession, and Fiona now sits as a High Court Judge in England, ruling on the messy details of other peoples' lives. Divorces and other family disputes come before her daily, and she rules on them calmly and coolly.
Little prepares Fiona for the events one June week that will turn her personal life into a conflict zone, and ultimate leave her unable to separate her private life from her public persona as she has throughout her career. In the opening pages of this impeccably-written novel, we find Fiona struggling to find a way to respond to her husband's ultimatum: he wants an open marriage, as a way to keep his decades-old marriage in place but seek passion (and sex) with someone new (and younger). How can Fiona, who can reach judgments on the worst aspects of others' private lives so calmly and resolutely, be so unprepared and so at a loss? At the same time, she is called on to rule on a one in a succession of cases that put the religious beliefs of a family front and center: in this case, the conviction of a family of Jehovah's Witnesses that blood transfusions are an abomination. And yet, only a blood transfusion, as part of a treatment for leukaemia, will save the life of their 17 year old son, Adam. Does Adam really understand what he is relinquishing by giving up a blood transfusion? Fiona's brief encounters with Adam as he struggles to make sense of his decisions and she strives to decide what to do next with her own life, will prove crucial to them both, in ways that neither imagine.
In contrast to other readers who found the character of Fiona cold and unconvincing, I saw her as all too human: a woman who has been moulded by her upbringing, her choice of career and the context of her relationships to behave in certain ways -- and now finds that those around her no longer find those to be adequate; they now demand more of her, a level of emotional engagement that has never been required of her before. McEwan's writing, as ever, is pithy; his characterizations are pitch-perfect. The final pages moved me to tears -- something that almost never happens to me when I'm reading a novel. (Perhaps I, too, have become too much like Fiona; older, jaded; dispassionate and detached.) It's not a sentimental novel, in any sense of the world, but it is a thought-provoking work, without being glib. Ultimately, it's a contemplation of what is possible, versus what is desirable, and the compromises that all of us are forced to make along the way.
Above all, what a delight to read a subtle, beautifully written novel; eloquent and moving without ever resorting to blunt force trauma to make sure the reader gets the point, but trusting in the reader's intelligence. Straight onto my list of the best books of 2014...
on November 25, 2014
The first chapters of this book seem like a cross between a social work class and the author's views on hasidim and the moral ambiguity of separating 'conjoined twins. The husband of the tale announces that he's off to have a sexual affair because he and his wife haven't had sex for 7.5 WEEKS!!!! This after being married for years. This throws the wife into realms of doubt and guilt....7.5 WEEKS FOR GOODNESS SAKE. The author lost my will to continue with the book (though I did) at that point.
His social work character is such a cliche...dishevelled and late ( but thankfully, competent).
Having taught social work and the law pertaining to same, I found this book really irritating on so many levels.
on September 27, 2014
Fiona Maye’s husband Jack just told her that he’s unsatisfied in their marriage. So much so that he’d like to change the terms and conditions of their vows to include the acceptance of an “open marriage” and he’s already got someone in mind to facilitate this new arrangement. Fiona is not at all amenable to this request and so the marriage is crumbling.
It’s never good timing for a marriage to crumble but timing couldn’t possibly be worse. Fiona is a High Court judge in London who presides over family court and she is about to meet Adam. Adam is a devout Jehovah’s Witness who is three months shy of his eighteenth birthday. Adam has leukemia. He’s dying. He and his parents are refusing the life-saving blood transfusion that he needs based upon their religious convictions. Fiona must decide if the High Court will intervene and force the young man to receive the blood products or let his own decision stand. In order to render her judgment, Fiona chooses to meet Adam in person and he is not at all as she thought he would be. He is so much more.
There isn’t much time for Fiona to make this decision. Her own emotions regarding her childless and crumbling marriage are forefront; but, as always, Fiona is the consummate professional. Or is she?
In the 221 pages of this book not one word is wasted. Not one. Too long to be a novella and a bit short to be a full novel, this book is seemingly just the right length. The legal aspects of the story never, ever, outweigh the emotional aspects. As a relatively new fan of Mr. Ian McEwan having read only SWEET TOOTH, in addition to THE CHILDREN ACT, I find myself anxious for more of his work. The ending of this book is subtle and elegant. You won’t find loudness. It simply ends quietly.
This book came to me from a giveaway that I entered on Shelf Awareness. The opinions above are expressly my own.
on September 22, 2014
It's been a while since I've finished a book by Ian McEwan feeling more than satisfied, probably not since On Chesil Beach. From 1997-2001 it seemed he couldn't miss. Then came a few rocky bumps including Solar, which was plain awful and stopped me from reading his books.
The first 20 or so pages of The Children Act promised to be a return to his heights. I was hoping. He has a knack of writing a gripping opening (notably Enduring Love) and then letting it slip a little... there was so much promise in the opening and then it basically deflated towards the end. He does seem to be predisposed to write about the upper middle class and their emotional problems as they drink fine wines and listen to classical music... alongside the freak-show of the lower classes and their predisposition towards stupidity, violence and slyness.
I wonder why I bother while there is a young man, David Mitchell, who is out there with thunder and lightening. McEwan's writing seems a bit dusty and uninteresting in comparison.
Still, I give it three stars, as he does have his moments.
I thought that this novel was silly and pretentious. I was disappointed, because I like McEwan's work and had preordered. He's an excellent writer - that aspect of novel is fine - but the characters are shallow (they are supposed to be, I know, but the novel doesn't suggest a reason why we should care about them) and the theme - betrayal - tired. The young boy at the novel's center is not a believable character, but rather a cliche, contrived to highlight the protagonist's shortcomings. I will continue to read McEwan; but this one is just so-so. To the author, I'd say: we are all getting older - no story there.