The Children Act Discussion Journal

We gathered this week to discuss Ian McEwan’s The Children Act. Ian McEwan is the award-winning author of Atonement. The story of a British High Court judge who presides over cases in the family court while struggling with her own domestic strife fit in nicely with our recent discussions of Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain and Landline by Rainbow Rowell.

Our first responder shared that she found the main character to be whiney, dropping the ChildrenActCoverball on her professional and ethical duties.  She also shared that one of our absent members had disliked the novel enough to stop reading. Another member had really liked the book until the end, when she felt tricked and cheated. The author set up the boy as a charismatic angel, entering and then abandoned in a brave new world. Others then chimed in that the book seemed contrived and predictable—obviously Fiona would decide to save the boy because otherwise the conflict would be over too quickly! Fiona’s husband was petulant and selfish. Wasn’t he too old for a midlife crisis? One member shared that she had recently read that 58% of all divorces are of couples over the age of 60.[i] We discussed briefly the common need as we age to fulfill a bucket list, to appraise the value of our lives, to search for meaning.

Since most of the comments were negative, placing blame on Fiona for failing to save Henry Adam, blame on her husband for not being able to help Fiona with the stress of her difficult cases, I asked if anyone found the characters admirable.  One member said she felt that Fiona was not responsible for Henry Adam’s suicide—she wasn’t even sure it was suicide. Ultimately he was an adult who was tired of dealing with a terminal disease.  Another said that although she didn’t exactly like Fiona, she found the way she approached and considered her cases to be admirable. She also noted that she was struck by the description of Henry Adam’s parents’ relief that the court had forced the transfusion that could save their son.  The same realization that shattered Henry Adam’s faith brought us a new understanding of such legal-religious struggles.

One member mentioned that he liked the early descriptions in the book; another had once worked across from the Old Bailey and followed the story’s geography from London to Newcastle on a map. Still another had recorded passages that were striking, such as “She belonged to the law as some women had once been brides of Christ”(p.49) or the author’s description of the legal wrangling of a divorce as “the whole circus rising, but so slowly, through the judicial hierarchy like a lopsided, ill-tethered hot-air balloon” (38).

Despite the negative comments, many found it to be easy to read and would read others by Ian McEwan.  Atonement was highly recommended by at least one of us. I read aloud some of the acclaim in the author’s biography. I also mentioned one reviewer who said (in a scathing review) that the ending seemed to be right out of James Joyce’s story The Dead.[ii] We touched on but didn’t discuss the potentially hot topic of religion. The discussion was measured, perhaps like Fiona’s tone, outwardly calm and controlled, but filled with an underlying poetry and music for those able to hear it.


[i] I briefly researched this (divorce) on the internet and could not corroborate these same statistics, however, I did find several articles on what NPR labeled “Gray Divorce.” Web accessed 9-16-2016:

[ii] I misstated during the meeting that a reviewer had said the entire novel resembled The Dead. And I did not mention the review’s title:  “Improbable, unconvincing and lazy – Ian McEwan’s latest is unforgivable” web accessed 9-15-2016: