Summary and book reviews of The Children Act by Ian McEwan

The Children Act

by Ian McEwan

The Children Act by Ian McEwan
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2014, 240 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2015, 240 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Suzanne Reeder

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Book Summary

A fiercely intelligent, well-respected High Court judge in London faces a morally ambiguous case while her own marriage crumbles in a novel that will keep readers thoroughly enthralled until the last stunning page.

Fiona Maye is a High Court judge in London presiding over cases in family court. She is fiercely intelligent, well respected, and deeply immersed in the nuances of her particular field of law. Often the outcome of a case seems simple from the outside, the course of action to ensure a child's welfare obvious. But the law requires more rigor than mere pragmatism, and Fiona is expert in considering the sensitivities of culture and religion when handing down her verdicts.

But Fiona's professional success belies domestic strife. Her husband, Jack, asks her to consider an open marriage and, after an argument, moves out of their house. His departure leaves her adrift, wondering whether it was not love she had lost so much as a modern form of respectability; whether it was not contempt and ostracism she really fears. She decides to throw herself into her work, especially a complex case involving a seventeen-year-old boy whose parents will not permit a lifesaving blood transfusion because it conflicts with their beliefs as Jehovah's Witnesses. But Jack doesn't leave her thoughts, and the pressure to resolve the case - as well as her crumbling marriage - tests Fiona in ways that will keep readers thoroughly enthralled until the last stunning page.

ONE

London. Trinity term one week old. Implacable June weather. Fiona Maye, a High Court judge, at home on Sunday evening, supine on a chaise longue, staring past her stockinged feet toward the end of the room, toward a partial view of recessed bookshelves by the fireplace and, to one side, by a tall window, a tiny Renoir lithograph of a bather, bought by her thirty years ago for fifty pounds. Probably a fake. Below it, centered on a round walnut table, a blue vase. No memory of how she came by it. Nor when she last put flowers in it. The fireplace not lit in a year. Blackened raindrops falling irregularly into the grate with a ticking sound against balled-up yellowing newsprint. A Bokhara rug spread on wide polished floorboards. Looming at the edge of vision, a baby grand piano bearing silver-framed family photos on its deep black shine. On the floor by the chaise longue, within her reach, the draft of a judgment. And Fiona was on her back, wishing all this stuff at the bottom of the...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. How did The Children Act affect your perception of family courts? What makes it so challenging for parents and the courts alike to follow the deceptively simple mandate that "the child's welfare shall be the . . . paramount consideration"?

  2. How would you react if your spouse made a proposal like Jack's? Is Jack's interest in Melanie purely sexual? When he asserts that couples in long marriages lose passion, is he right?

  3. How would you have ruled in the first case described in The Children Act, regarding the education of Rachel and Nora Bernstein? Does Fiona approach religious freedom the same way in her ruling for Adam's case?

  4. How did your impression of Adam and his parents shift throughout the novel? How does his ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

At 221 pages, The Children Act is one of McEwan's leaner books. It's an absorbing read but lacks the riveting suspense and intricacies of some of his previous works. Unfortunately, too, the marital conflict between Fiona and her husband—while compelling in the first few chapters—becomes less so as the story continues. Without giving too much away, the resolution comes across as a bit too strained, and therefore difficult to believe. Nonetheless, McEwan's powerful prose radiates throughout much of this novel that also possesses his unique brilliance, wit, and warmth.   (Reviewed by Suzanne Reeder).

Full Review (594 words).

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Media Reviews

The Washington Post

McEwan presents a ferociously intelligent and competent woman struggling to rule on a complex legal matter while feeling humiliated and betrayed by her husband ... a notable volume from one of the finest writers alive.

Los Angeles Times

A quietly exhilarating book ... The Children Act chronicles the recalibration of a 30-year marriage after it has fallen out of balance.

Entertainment Weekly

Haunting ... a brief but substantial addition to the author’s oeuvre.

The Boston Globe

The Children Act manages to be highly subtle and page-turningly dramatic at once ... Only a master could manage, in barely over 200 pages, to engage so many ideas, leaving nothing neatly answered.

The Wall Street Journal

[The Children Act’s] sense of life-and-death urgency never wavers . . . you would have to go back to Saturday or Atonement to find scenes of equivalent intensity and emotional investment.

People

Heartbreaking and profound, it skillfully juxtaposes the dilemmas of ordinary life and tabloid-ready controversy.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Readers may dispute his most pessimistic inferences, but few will deny McEwan his place among the best of Britain's living novelists.

Booklist

Starred Review. With his trademark style, which is a tranquil mix of exacting word choice and easily flowing sentences, McEwan once again observes with depth and wisdom the universal truth in the uncommon situation.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. 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 (2007)

Reader Reviews

Diane S.

The Chidren Act
An author, I believe, takes a risk when he centers his novel around one character. So often a reader will rate their enjoyment of the book on whether or not they can relate to the character. In this story the main character is Fiona, approaching ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

A History of Child Welfare Policy

During the 19th century many children in the United Kingdom and the United States suffered from hardship, neglect, and abuse. Poor children in Victorian England had to work, frequently long hours and in dangerous conditions (in coal mines or textile mills, for example), in order to help financially support their families. In the U.S., the Civil War left many children orphaned and destitute. In addition, the Industrial Revolution and flood of immigration created a society ripe for child exploitation. Due to their size, children could fit in small spaces in mines or factories, and could be paid less than adults. They often had to forgo school and were forced to work in hazardous environments.

Although there were established societies ...

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