The Children Act by Ian McEwan

The Children ActThe Children Act by Ian McEwan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Perhaps it’s best I read The Children Act in the space of a day, curled on my sofa. Otherwise I might have been spied in my favorite café purring like a contented cat, stroked by Ian McEwan’s sublime prose.


Words adore Ian McEwan, submitting readily to his firm but empathetic hand. They are sleek and gorgeous dancers to his choreography; alone, the words are admirable, but under his direction they assume nuance and strength. His works never fail to take my breath away. It is a comfort to know, regardless of the story I am about to witness, that I will be treated with the utmost respect by an author who assumes I revere language and composition as much as he does. It is because of writers like Ian McEwan that I have come to cherish the art of writing.


But even the most skilled and erudite writing cannot save a flawed story. Fortunately, this author takes his craft as seriously as his art.


In the vein of Saturday, The Children Act imposes an ethical dilemma on a member of the élite caste of British society and places its protagonist in crisis. In this most recent of McEwan’s thirteen novels, Fiona Maye, a High Court judge in Britain’s Family Division, hears a case of a young Jehovah’s Witness with leukemia whose parents refuse to allow a critical medical procedure. His religion forbids blood transfusions and the hospital has appealed to the High Court to force the treatment on the dying patient. Time is running out—Fiona, or ‘My Lady’ as she is addressed in court, has only a few days to hear the case and render her decision before it is too late to save the young man’s life.


Complicating an already impossible situation is Adam, the patient. He is nearly the age of consent—just a few months shy of his eighteenth birthday—and his objection to the transfusion is as strong as his parents’. There is legal precedent to allowing an older minor to make life or death decisions about his care, and the judge must decide if Adam is fully aware of the consequences of his choice. His death will be agonizing, or in the unlikely event he lives, his future will be a half-life spent in blindness and compromised mental capacity. Standing against her is a sheltered faith of dubious theological framework, and the right to determine one’s own destiny.


The control and confidence with which Fiona Maye handles her cases belies the mess of her life at home. At the start of this slim novel, her husband Jack, a university professor, announces he would like to have an affair and hopes she’ll understand his need to assert his sexuality in the waning light of his life. Fiona and Jack have been married for thirty years and although they have no children, their life is enriched with the frequent presence of nieces and nephews.


McEwan brings to the page a paradox that fascinates me: how many can be in such supreme command of their professional lives, yet find themselves mired in disaster at home. But this is where The Children Act stumbles and strains for me. Jack offers as defense for his fling the fact that he and Fiona have not had sex for “seven weeks and one day,” a period during which Fiona was trying an exceptionally draining and emotional case. As she ruminates about their marriage, Fiona recalls an active and satisfying sex life.


As sensitive and starkly real a portrayal of new marriage as McEwan rendered in On Chesil Beach, I find myself disbelieving the mature marriage in The Children Act. I can’t determine if the author expects us to believe a man would pursue an affair after a brief dry season and that he would want his wife to accept to an open marriage, a marriage that had heretofore known great sex. But later, as Fiona and Jack find their way back to each other, the tiny, tender moments of frail solidarity seep in and mostly redeem the incredible bits.


The troubled marriage plays in the background. It is the case of Adam and his faith that allows us to enter Fiona’s intellect and to battle with our own ethical and moral demons. Fiona’s internalized anguish over her own childlessness adds poignancy to her strength on the bench of family court. She determines the fate of so many children, yet Fate has determined that she will have none of her own.


In this era of doorstop novels—those giant, bloated affairs that become the darlings of the literati (and of me, yes, I have loved many a 500-hundred-plus-pager in recent months!)—it is a gift to read a rich, complete, thoughtful novel that combines meticulous research with exciting imagination in a mere 221 pages. The Children Act isn’t perfect (and what a relief that it isn’t, right?). But it’s vital, full of emotion, and so beautifully written, it made me purr.


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Book Review: Enough About Love, Hervé Le Tellier

Enough About LoveEnough About Love by Hervé Le Tellier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

To appreciate this novel is to recognize that it is written with Gallic sense and sensibility. That is to say, it is not a linear story with a predictable arc that reaches a climax and culminates in a resolution. In substance and style it is a novel of process, of conversation, of debate. It is, like the culture which it represents, maddening, thoughtful, intriguing, and seductive.

To enjoy this novel is to not expect a romance or a comedy- for it is not- but to delight in the romantic or comedic moments when they occur.

To read this novel is to be reminded that none of us truly knows another’s marriage, even that of a close friend, a sibling, or a colleague with whom you spend more time than your own spouse.

Enough About Love is a perfect title. It sound like a command, as in “Enough, already!” or “Let’s not talk about it anymore!” It could be the plea of psychoanalyst Thomas Le Gall, who pays off a small villa in Italy by listening to the angst-ridden memories and confessions of his patients. It could be the irritated and guilty brush off by stunning Anna Stein, a just-forty psychiatrist and mother of two, of her husband, the devoted Stanislaus. It could be the impatient demand of lithe Louise Blum, hot-shot attorney, as she instructs her husband, biologist Romain Vidal, on the fine art of speech delivery. It could be the jaded sigh of esoteric writer Yves Janvier, disagreeing with the suggestion that his next novel should have “love” in the title, to attract more readers.

These characters’ lives intersect; whether in a therapist’s office, in a café, on a sidewalk, or in a bed, the smallest ripples of chance force waves of change. By meeting, they are each compelled to examine their belief in love and where it diverges from passion or converges on friendship.

Le Tellier manages to make you care about characters whose lives are vastly removed from most. These are exceptionally attractive, successful, well-read, well-bred Parisians- conditions determined by birth into France’s upper-middle class, largely unavailable even to the hardest-working. The women live up to the impossible French notion of the ideal woman: she who brings home the bacon, fries it up in pan, and never lets Monsieur forget he’s a man. The men are allowed more diversity: a paunch in the belly, a thinning pate, weaker of character and of heart. For this I fault the male and the French in Le Tellier and the American in me. Perhaps his French readers expect no less; I weary of female characters whose physical perfection turns them into caricatures.

Le Tellier, through his intellectual-elite characters, also brings out the question of Jewish identity and French remorse and guilt about the treatment of Jews in France during the Second World War. At times it is poignant, at times shocking how contemporary France embraces and rejects its Jewish past and present.

Considering the style of Enough About Love: there is enough conventional novel structure to seduce you into a story of love and infidelity. But anticipate being walked through a maze of literary flourishes: a chapter that is one long inventory of Anna’s clothing purchases; a speech and an internal dialogue that run simultaneously for several pages, mirroring a game of Abkhazian Dominos –  a game that takes on a life of its own within the story; a love sonnet composed of forty distinct memories. An anonymous and omniscient narrator is so close to the characters’ innermost identities his or her revelations border on the more intimate second person narrative.

This is a quick read, but it is not light. There is a beautiful economy of words that is so quintessentially French – I commend the translator Adriana Hunter for the conveying the precision and clarity of the French language in the rich and muddled mess of English.

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