The Children Act

The Children Act

by Ian McEwan


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101872871
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/28/2015
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 97,862
Product dimensions: 5.16(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.75(d)

About the Author

IAN McEWAN is the bestselling author of fifteen books, including the novels Sweet Tooth; Solar, winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize; On Chesil Beach; Saturday; Atonement, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the W. H. Smith Literary Award; The Comfort of Strangers and Black Dogs, both short-listed for the Booker Prize; Amsterdam, winner of the Booker Prize; and The Child in Time, winner of the Whitbread Award; as well as the story collections First Love, Last Rites, winner of the Somerset Maugham Award, and In Between the Sheets.


Oxford, England

Date of Birth:

June 21, 1948

Place of Birth:

Aldershot, England


B.A., University of Sussex, 1970; M.A., University of East Anglia, 1971

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Excerpted from "The Children Act"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Ian McEwan.
Excerpted by permission of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Reading Group Guide

Throughout his award-winning career, literary master Ian McEwan has used the art of fiction to deftly illuminate the human experience. In The Children Act, he raises compelling questions about the role of religion in the modern world, in a mesmerizing novel that also probes the faith we place in one another. Fiona Maye is a leading High Court judge, called upon to try an urgent case: for religious reasons, a beautiful seventeen-year-old boy, Adam, is refusing the medical treatment that could save his life, and his devout parents echo his wishes. In the course of reaching a decision, Fiona visits Adam in the hospital. The encounter stirs long-buried feelings as she confronts the lingering regret of her childlessness, and the fact that her thirty-year marriage is in crisis. Her judgment and its aftermath will have momentous consequences for her future as well as Adam’s.
We hope that the following topics will enrich your reading group’s discussion.

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 childhood exposure to religion compare to your own?

5. At the heart of Adam’s testimony is a definition of scripture, secured by faith in his religious leaders to interpret scripture perfectly. How should the government and the court system consider religious texts?

6. Both Jack and Adam are drawn to romantic ideals, albeit at opposite stages of life. Are their dreams reckless or simply passionate?

7. As Fiona reflects on her life, which choices bring her solace? How does she reconcile her childlessness with her notions of the ideal woman? How does her personal history affect her decisions in court?

8. Discuss Fiona’s sojourn to Newcastle. What is she pursuing on that journey? What is Adam pursuing when he follows her there?

9. What does “The Ballad of Adam Henry” (page 187) reveal about the nature of youth, and the nature of mortality?

10. What is Fiona able to experience through music that she can’t access any other way? For Mark (possibly with a new lover to impress), and for the Gray’s Inn community, what is the significance of the Great Hall concerts?

11. In the novel’s closing scene, what transformations do Jack and Fiona undergo?

12. How does The Children Act enhance your experience of Ian McEwan’s previous novels? What is unique about the way his characters approach moral dilemmas?

13. Explore a few of the recordings of Benjamin Britten’s setting for “Down by the Salley Gardens” that are available online. How do the melody and the verses affect you? In your experience, what does it mean to take love and life “easy”?

Customer Reviews

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The Children Act 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 38 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I received this book from GoodReads/ First Reads and the publisher. And I thank them in advance for their generosity. However, I was not compensated otherwise and my opinions are my own. Now you know, and knowing's half the battle ;) The last Ian McEwan I read was 'Atonement', and even all these years later it still felt as though I sligged through a theology textbook. With that memory forefront, I began a bound galley of "The Children Act" about a British judge, her husband, and some of the cases she has before her, one of which peppers the book with ethical boundry issues, intellegence, faith and the different forms of love out there in the world. Fiona Maye is a High Court judge whose specialty is the equivilent of Family Court. Over the years, she has become known for her understanding of culture and religious empathy, and her verdicts are well respected. Her homelife is another story. She and her husband are estranged, virtual strangers. And when he confronts her about it, she sends him out and changes the locks, looking for some peace like that she reflects in her working life. And then a particular case causes her distress as she must rule in a case concerning Jehovah's Witness beliefs and the understandings of a 17 year old. Can he be considered an adult? Are his protestations romantic notions, or true beliefs. Struggling, she turns in part to legalities to make her decisions, with strained results. As the case fades, her understandings of adult decisions transform. The black and white of law become shades of greys and sepia as everyone lives with and within her decision. And transformation occurs. This wasn't an easy read. For a relatively short book, I could not read it all in one sitting. I could see in my mind's eye Dame Judy Dench and Geoffrey Palmer as Fiona and Jack( That can't be as Dame Judith is no longer acting, and I do not know if Palmer is either). I kept going back to the premise of Judge Maye's decision: the Gillick competence stating that if a minor child can be deemed competent, his or her wishes would be treated with all due fairness as an adult. (The Family Reform Act of 1969 sec.8 paraphrase). The question I am left with, and that will haunt me, is , is anyone competent enough to understand the consequences of their actions. And, are they willing to live with them?
NathanDPhillips More than 1 year ago
I was sorely disappointed with McEwan's last novel, Sweet Tooth. I felt it was not nearly as clever as it thought itself to be and was worried that one of my favorite authors was dwindling in his old age. How thankful I am that The Children Act proved me wrong. The novel deviates from many of McEwan's normal plot points. There is no terrifying sexual twist, no horribly grotesque opening scene. However, through each of the five chapters, every plot point that McEwan hits is right on. Discussions about the law and about court proceedings are interesting and cause one to pause and think through the political and philosophical ramifications of what is taking place. The main conflict in question - whether the protagonist will allow a hospital to treat a Jehovah's Witness youth against his and his parents will - is exciting and deep enough that it could have made for a much longer book.The only thing that disappointed me about the book was I felt that the language was not nearly as innovative as in other McEwan novels. That's not to say it's bad. it's still very strong. I just wanted a bit more innovation.
Annakel More than 1 year ago
I have read all of McEwan's books (Saturday is my personal favourite). I found the book to be an easy read, though the topics are deeper, the judge deciding whether a 17 year old has the right to voice his own medical decision. Her personal life is shattering and as she deals with her decision about the 17 year old, she grows personally, more able to deal with her shattering relationship with her husband. I recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved it but was dissapointed that it was so short! Seemed like it was too expensive for a couple of hours read. Wish the number of pages was provided
jak18 More than 1 year ago
I liked this novel more than I expected to. It is about family, marriage, children, religion and the law. The title refers to a bit of English law: "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." This piece of legislation from 1989 is a giant step towards civilization from the climate of British legal views on children in the days when Charles Dickens grew up. I kept finding myself thinking of Oliver Twist and David Copperfield as I read. But the child in question here is only months away from turning 18. Because he was raised and protected from the world by devout Jehovah's Witnesses, he has a childlike view of life and the world. He is dying of a disease (was it leukemia? I don't recall) and could possibly be saved by a blood transfusion but his parents will not allow it as that would violate their religious beliefs. Fiona Maye, a middle aged, childless High Court judge in family court holds the power to decide what has become a legal battle between the parents and the hospital where the boy lies dying. Concurrent with the progression of the case is a horrific problem in Fiona's marriage. In almost perfect prose with impeccable timing, the drama plays out. Each character is poised on some brink where passions and disappointments in life meet the person's capacity for making good and sensible judgements. Or you could call it an inner battle of maturity meets childishness. Of course, no one really ever wins in such battles. Life is not that simple and is in fact messy. Turning 18 or even 60 is no guarantee of maturity. McEwan keeps the reader captive on these brinks he created which makes for an incredibly good read. He does not judge, even while every character makes judgements and thus we see ourselves and others with increased empathy. I read this for one of my reading groups and we had one of our best discussions ever.
SuseNJ More than 1 year ago
A moving story with surprises and suspense, very well-written.
TheReadingWriter More than 1 year ago
In calm, clear, patient English McEwan presents a particularly agonizing example of the stunning success and haunting failure of a juridical system, indeed, of a well-tempered, well-disciplined judicial mind. A transcendently wise decision over a matter of life and death cannot save a vital, loving, innocent teenaged boy without concomitant fulfilment of the obligation to prepare him for the world. McEwan’s prose is precise, alluring, devilish, revealing in a paragraph a history, in a pause an acceptance. It is magisterial. McEwan’s quietly devastating intellectual and legal thriller has the requisite two plot threads, but both occur within the confines of one character, Fiona. One thread traces the crumbling of a long-time marriage between two successful adults on the cusp of old age, and the other is defined by a case Fiona is handling in court. McEwan’s choice to make his central character a judge and a woman brings an undeniable tension to our reading. We are not accustomed to imagining the home lives of judges. The dissolution, by silence and sighs, of a long-term marriage is distressing enough, but when neither party wants it, it is a kind of willful “suicide” and we are undone. The case that delivers the coup de grâce features a religious young man undergoing medical treatment for leukemia. His faith does not allow a life-saving blood transfusion and Fiona must decide whether he is to live with treatment or certainly die.  It is ungainly to pair the word “children” with “jurisprudence” by any stretch of the imagination, and yet that is something McEwan does here. It is something many family lawyers do every day, day in and day out, for their working lives. The tension created by the cool, educated rationality and judicial restraint exhibited in a hotly debated and divisive case of life-giving treatment versus religious scruple is stomach-churning and mind-roiling. Fiona makes a wise decision hailed by all litigants (view spoiler). McEwan skillfully manages us by cranking up the tension and releasing it in unexpected ways. On the day Fiona visits the boy in her case to see if he is aware of the consequences of his decisions, she inappropriately experiences a thrill of excitement in contemplation of the hospital visit. Fiona "likes hospitals." She has good memories of her own hospital stay as a child. As she enters, the décor of the hospital parodies the ambiance of an international airport promising different destinations, PEDIATRIC ONCOLOGY, NUCLEAR MEDICINE, PHLEBOTOMY, in signs with motorway lettering. The absurdity of these observations helps us through our approach to the too-terrible-to-contemplate interview. The hospital bedside scene is unexpected, surprising, life-giving--filled with tension and its not-quite release. Another gorgeous set-piece comes months later. Nowhere had McKwen even hinted at anything so crass as sexism in the high courts. But in one slyly telling scene he has Fiona on assignment in Newcastle, staying overnight without her husband in a drafty mansion with four other judges “in dark suits and ties, each holding a gin and tonic, [who] ceased talking and rose from their armchairs as she entered.” At dinner, “after a hiatus of polite dithering, it was agreed that, for the sake of symmetry, Fiona should sit at the head. So far she had barely spoken.” During the dinner conversation about ongoing cases under adjudication, one diner solicitously interrupts Fiona’s closest dinner companion with “I hope you realize just how distinguished a judge this is that you’re talking to.” Just in case you missed her significance. Even when Fiona is away from court and home there is tension. She has set herself up to open Christmas Revels in the Great Hall, playing Berlioz, Mahler, Schubert on piano in front of colleagues where “standards were punitively high for an amateur affair…It was said they knew a bad note before it was played.” Her schedule permits little time for practice, but when she finally is able to schedule a practice with the barrister with whom she is to perform, he spends acres of precious time ranting about a case he is working on, while we listen and grow anxious.  The lawyerly rants seeded throughout the novel serve many purposes. The first crushes any notion of pure Justice. Any system of justice made by imperfect persons will be imperfect. We also can see the eminent reasonableness of the barristers in their struggle to serve justice. The rants increase the readers’ tension not only because they may be long and complicated but because we know any ruling will be fraught with dissent and division. These things place a judge in an intolerable position. Fiona recognizes in law concerning children “kindness…[is] the essential human ingredient.”  One cannot help but imagine a terrific movie being made from this carefully crafted short novel. Sections of it read like stage directions, so much do we learn from a glance, a setting, a situation. So much of the tension in the relationship between Fiona and her husband is manifestly visual and unspoken, so polite and yet so hurtful. And the boy. We want to see the boy.  McEwan writes with such economy, clarity, humor, and insight that it is always a joy to discover what he will to focus on next. The 2014 hardcover edition published by Doubleday is beautifully printed, and a pleasure to hold, to read. I even like the cover. Kudos all round on this one. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is one book you don't want to miss. Ian is at his best in this book . His character portrayal has you picturing each character and walking with him or her and wanting to change some to fit the readers approach to life. Ian has an imagination that knows no bounds as he weaves this story into a book that captivates the reader. There are unexpected twists as one explores the depths of his story. Don't miss this. I was drawn to the book by his book interview on one of the radio inter- views on an educational talk show. He is as good in an interview as he is a writer. He explained how he creates his characters from his walk through the mists that appear to him as he writes. This book is a keeper. You will want it for your own library to loan to friends. My husband is a writer so this book was one we really appreciated. It is a good book for book club discussion as each reader could be drawn for opposing views.
AnonMI More than 1 year ago
I found it, overall, a bit tedious in parts.  It was interesting in presenting the Jehovah Witness case as that has been an issue in our coursts also. However, overall, I was a bit tired after finishing it, feeling as if I had been privy to a woman having a late mid-life crisis that is so far from my own life I found nothing I could relate to. Quite expensive for such a short book.
Anonymous 5 months ago
The content was tight and portrayed a deeper meaning of how one’s perception or individualism could deter or blind herself from seeing the true intention.
Anonymous 6 months ago
Every time I thought I knew what was coming next, I was surprised.
SheilaDeeth More than 1 year ago
In the old world, common sense prevailed or failed. In the early days of judges, the wise man or woman drew difficult decisions from personal intervention. But today the steps are separate; the judge on her bench, the social worker at the gate, the doctor with drugs and machines, and the elder, holding fast to religious interpretation. Ian McEwan’s The Children Act invites readers into the mind of a good judge, a woman who holds the lives and futures of children and others in her hands, and chooses wisely. But personal intervention isn’t always something you can control, and even the wisest decider can’t see the future. Balancing childlessness with a care for decisions about children, wounded love with a need to measure the substance of a parent’s emotion, and the logic of music with the progression of law, the author draws readers to think about problems not often seen, and view them through different eyes. How much is a life worth? Where does belief come from? And what price might faith demand? Evocative descriptions of places, powerful emotions, and logically satisfying decisions all rise from the page. But behind it all is a musical balance—emotional discord in the beauty of jazz juxtaposed with reliable chords played in perfect time; violin next to piano; persistence violating the judge’s need to move on. By the end, the reader too moves on, moved by a glimpse of glory and sorrow, never seeing the future but hearing its music in hope. Disclosure: I’ve been meaning to read this for ages. So glad I finally did.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Delphimo More than 1 year ago
The book started very slowly, and made this reader feel that the effort could be in vain. I perseveres, and the book gathers momentum. A judge, Fiona, must rule on whether a seventeen-year-old Seven Day Adventist boy should be given a blood transfusion. Fiona goes to the hospital and meets the boy, and bases her decision on the meeting. McEwan interweaves Fiona's tale of boredom and despair with the story of Adam, the sick youth while relating the regulations that Fiona must obey in her decision. Fiona reaches her decision, and the story escalates and just as quickly ends. The novel does not develop the characters, but attempts to explain Adam and Fiona's psyche.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The writing style is much better than the actual story. I found the story boring, and I could not identify with any of the characters. The whole business about the young Jehovah Wittness boy who became obsessed with Fiona is rather unbelievable and, frankly, not very interesting. Fiona's husband is immature and irritating. I wish she had divorced him instead of ending up in bed with him at the end.
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Paul_Meyer More than 1 year ago
The Children Act is another masterfully written work in the classic McEwan vein. An ambiguous yet evocative story line challenge the reader to examine and embrace the complexity and nuances of love as a core human value. Like "Saturday Morning" or "Black Dogs", the author depicts life unfolding and shaping the characters through moments sublime and tragic. McEwan offers no apologies for his characters and no easy answers for the reader. The Children Act isn't about children, the judiciary, or even about religion versus humanism. It is about human love in all its forms struggling against circumstances that loom and linger in the life of each character. The Children Act is serious fiction that rewards with the gift of perspective and thoughtful insight.
lezertje More than 1 year ago
This book pulls you into the story. It makes you take sides and wonder how it will develop. The end comes too soon. A great read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a very engaging story, getting you involved in the story right from the start. Very well written and thought provoking.