The Children Act

By Ian McEwan

(Knopf Doubleday, $25, 240 pages)

Who is this author?

Ian McEwan is a bestselling British author, who has 15 books to his credit, many of which have won major prizes. Solar won a Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize; Atonement won a National Book Critics Circle Award and the W. H. Smith Literary Award; Amsterdam took a Booker Prize and The Child in Time, received the Whitbread Novel of the Year Award for 1987.  His other books include On Chesil Beach, Saturday, The Comfort of Strangers and Black Dogs, and he also has written award-winning story collections. Atonement was made into a major motion picture in 2007 and was nominated for seven Academy Awards.

What is this book about?

This novel blends the story of a marriage gone bad with a court case that pits a religious family against the medical establishment. The link is High Court Judge Fiona Maye, whose 30-year marriage is falling apart because of her husband Jack’s infidelity and who is charged with presiding over a case in which a dying 17-year-old and his Jehovah’s Witnesses parents are refusing treatment that is almost certain to save him. because of their religious beliefs. Should a secular court overrule the family? Should deep religious devotion win out even if it will lead to the boy’s death? Fiona visits the boy, which causes each of them emotional turmoil. How will she rule on a case that seems to have no clear guidelines, but will surely have far-reaching consequences?

Why you’ll like it:

McEwan is a very skillful writer – his On Chesil Beach was a hilariously sad exploration of two inexperienced lovers terrified of having marital sex – and he draws complicated but believable characters. And in this current period of time, when the counterclaims of religious entities and secular society are clashing over health care insurance, this is a timely book.

What others are saying:                                

The Barnes & Noble Review says: “You’d be hard put to find a better choice for reading groups than Ian McEwan’s The Children Act. This book has so much going for it, on so many levels: moral, emotional, literary. . . . The Children Act is a compact, contemporary narrative that focuses intimately on a protagonist’s professional and personal life as she bumps up against various moral and personal crises. Where Saturday’s propulsive, explosive plot convincingly took us deep inside the life and thoughts of a male neurosurgeon under pressure, The Children Act just as persuasively zeroes in on a fifty-nine-year-old female High Court Judge in London. Fiona Maye presides over cases of divorce, custody, and child welfare in the Family Division with impressive aplomb, until her own generally solid marriage hits an unexpected but all-too-common snag. The somewhat awkward title — at least to American ears — comes from a 1989 British law that deems a child’s welfare “the court’s paramount consideration” in cases that involve them. . . . its length is a modest 221 pages, The Children Act is rich with issues that provoke thought and conversation: the nature of devotion (both religious and romantic), legality versus morality, the social aspects of welfare and well-being, the boundary between professional and personal responsibilities, and the marital tug-of-war between what one partner views as “brazen” behavior and the other as an “overblown sense of injury.” Readers will want to discuss Fiona’s various decisions, both in court and in her reactions to both Jack and young Adam, as well as the protracted, delicate thaw that follows a domestic freeze. But most of all, they’ll want to savor McEwan’s ability to pack so much into this tightly composed, ultimately moving story.”

Publishers Weekly‘s starred review says:  “The 1989 Children Act made a child’s welfare the top priority of English courts—easier said than done, given the complexities of modern life and the pervasiveness of human weakness, as Family Court Judge Fiona Maye discovers in McEwan’s 13th novel. Approaching 60, at the peak of her career, Fiona has a reputation for well-written, well-reasoned decisions. She is, in fact, more comfortable with cool judgment than her husband’s pleas for passion. While he pursues a 28-year-old statistician, Fiona focuses on casework, especially a hospital petition to overrule two Jehovah’s Witnesses who refuse blood transfusions for Adam, their 17-year-old son who’s dying of leukemia. Adam agrees with their decision. Fiona visits Adam in the hospital, where she finds him writing poetry and studying violin. Childless Fiona shares a musical moment with the boy, then rules . . . . Adam’s ensuing rebellion against his parents, break with religion, and passionate devotion to Fiona culminate in a disturbing face-to-face encounter that calls into question what constitutes a child’s welfare and who best represents it. As in Atonement, what doesn’t happen has the power to destroy; as in Amsterdam, McEwan probes the dread beneath civilized society. In spare prose, he examines cases, people, and situations, to reveal anger, sorrow, shame, impulse, and yearning. He rejects religious dogma that lacks compassion, but scrutinizes secular morality as well. Readers may dispute his most pessimistic inferences, but few will deny McEwan his place among the best of Britain’s living novelists.”

Kirkus says in its starred review: “In the late summer of 2012, a British judge faces a complex case while dealing with her husband’s infidelity in this thoughtful, well-wrought novel. Fiona Maye, at 59, has just learned of an awful crack in her marriage when she must rule on the opposing medical and religious interests surrounding a 17-year-old boy who will likely die without blood transfusions. The cancer patient, weeks shy of the age when he could speak for himself, has embraced his parents’ deep faith as Jehovah’s Witnesses and their abhorrence of letting what the Bible deems a pollutant enter his body. The scenes before the bench and at the boy’s hospital bedside are taut and intelligent, like the best courtroom dramas. . . . Meanwhile, McEwan, in a rich character study that begs for a James Ivory film, shows Fiona reckoning with the doubt, depression and temporary triumphs of the betrayed—like an almost Elizabethan digression on changing the locks of their flat—not to mention guilt at stressing over her career and forgoing children. . . . Also running through the book is a musical theme, literal and verbal, in which Fiona escapes the legal world and “the subdued drama of her half-life with Jack” to play solo and in duets. McEwan, always a smart, engaging writer, here takes more than one familiar situation and creates at every turn something new and emotionally rewarding in a way he hasn’t done so well since On Chesil Beach.”

Library Journal says: “Obsession is a familiar subject for McEwan, most memorably explored in his 1997 Enduring Love. This time the theme is a touchstone in a novel exploring a man’s fixation on having an open marriage, a boy’s fascination with the judge who will decide his fate, and a couple’s determination to follow the strictures of their religion no matter the cost. The judge, Fiona Maye, must decide whether the teenage boy, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, can be forced by the court to undergo the blood transfusion that is necessary to save his life. Clouding Maye’s mind is turmoil at home: her husband is calmly insisting upon changing the boundaries of their relationship, a story line that will remind readers of the excruciating tiptoeing-around-each-other executed in the author’s On Chesil Beach. In the end, this nuanced work explores compelling ideas but is not as memorable as McEwan’s best. It may find a wider audience than some of his works, though, as its setting is contemporary and its major plotline—religious exemptions to laws—topical.”

When is it available?

It’s at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Dwight and Mark Twain branches now.

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