The Children Act by Ian McEwan

Feb 15, 2016

I finished The Children Act late one evening. It left me with a million thoughts and questions, but because of the hour, there wasn't anyone I could talk them over with. (Mike was out of town at the time, and I have a hard time going to sleep when he's gone anyway, so finishing a book with such conflicting emotions made it so much worse.)

So instead, I sent my friend this text: "I'm going to reserve judgement until after I've let it sit with me for a few days, but I just finished The Children Act tonight, and it left me feeling completely baffled." (It was this same friend who actually selected this book for our February book club, so you can tell that our friendship does not hinge on liking the same books but rather on being able to discuss them openly and honestly.)

It's been several weeks now since I finished it, and I no longer feel baffled. I've sorted through the various characters and their actions, I've analyzed my own convictions, and I've discussed it with a group of women I highly respect (seriously, it was one of the best book club discussions I've ever been a part of). I don't know that I'll be able to articulate any of that, but I'm going to try.

Fiona is a highly respected family court judge. She is sixty years old and has devoted her life to her career. It has taken precedence over everything, including her marriage to Jack, which, when the story opens, is really suffering because of it. In fact, Jack has just told Fiona that he's going to have an affair unless she gives him a reason not to.

Fiona realizes that she has become physically and emotionally distant over the last seven weeks and one day, ever since she passed judgment on a heart-wrenching case involving conjoined twins. But she can't seem to talk about it or tell Jack what's bothering her.

So Jack leaves, and Fiona submerges herself in an urgent case involving a 17-year-old boy, Adam, with leukemia who is refusing a life-saving blood transfusion because he is a Jehovah's Witness. Fiona must determine if, even though Adam is a minor, he is mature enough to make this decision for himself or if it is the court's responsibility to protect his well-being until he has reached legal age.

The implications of this decision are, of course, extreme--life on one hand, death on the other--and it was fascinating to watch Fiona methodically sort through it all from a legal perspective. The writing was riveting, and, even as Fiona was delivering her verdict, I didn't know which way it was going to fall.

But then . . . things got complicated. There were certain repercussions from her decision that Fiona didn't/couldn't think of, and I found that my own thoughts ran the gamut as I watched the ending play out.

At this point, I'll just warn you that there will be spoilers ahead, so read at your own risk.

When we discussed this at book club, the question came up: Did Fiona make the right decision? And I think the general consensus was yes, of course she did. But I disagreed.

Before she makes her final decision, Fiona visits Adam in the hospital. And what she finds is a bright, intelligent, talented boy with a passion for living and a strong belief in his religion. Therein lies the conflict. He is writing poetry and learning to play the violin, but he also believes strongly that a blood transfusion would be going counter to what God wants him to do.

And so he has decided to stay true to his belief even if it means he will die (which he most certainly will). He is happy, confident, and self-assured.

But was that belief misplaced?

I would say yes. (And so did Fiona.)

However, was it not Adam's right to misplace his own belief even if it meant potentially sacrificing his life? This is where my thoughts become conflicted. Adam is, after all, three months shy of being eighteen. Legally, he is not capable of this decision, but Fiona references something known as "Gillick competence" wherein a minor is able to make medical decisions for himself or herself.

Even though Adam is not yet eighteen, he is extremely intelligent and well aware of the consequences of his actions. Can he understand them fully? Of course not. But could a twenty-one-year-old or thirty-five-year-old or sixty-year-old understand them any better? In that same vein, would he make the same decision if he was twenty-one or thirty-five or sixty? It's impossible to know. Some of the decisions I made at seventeen, I would still make at thirty-one. But some I would not. Adam's belief may have grown stronger or it may have slowly faded.

As it is, after Fiona passes judgment and Adam receives the blood transfusion, it is as if his foundation has been ripped out from under him. At first, he is ecstatic. He is grateful for his life and for the opportunities that are opening up before him. But his testimony has been shattered, and he can't seem to put it back together.

Maybe that means it wasn't all that strong to begin with. Maybe it would have happened down the road anyway. Maybe it exposed the holes in his belief and made him realize that his belief was misplaced. But what I saw was a boy who had a purpose, something to live (and die) for, and when it was no longer there, it was as if he was drifting on an open sea. Because he no longer had anything to cling to, he lost his will to live (and to die) and that was tragic for me to see.

Of course, there are so many ways to look at this, and we turned it over and around many times at book club: Would Fiona's decision have been different if she hadn't visited Adam in the hospital? If she was religious herself? If Adam's decision had nothing to do with religion? If Fiona had been a mother? But for me personally, I think Adam should have been allowed to make that decision for himself, and I think if he had, he would have either lived or died feeling secure and happy.

I think it was also difficult for me to wrestle with the religious questions in this book. Religious freedom is something I hold most dear and precious, and it was really difficult to see that yanked away from someone (even if that someone was, technically, a child). Looking at my own religion's past, I think there are many things then (and actually currently) that could be considered extreme. I can't think of anything that would have this sort of life-and-death consequence, but still, seeing a person's freedom being taken away made me acutely uncomfortable because I would be so devastated to have my own belief questioned and taken away from me.

Can you see why I couldn't fall asleep after I finished this book? I haven't even mentioned the strangest kiss I've ever read about or Jack and Fiona's relationship after he comes back or whether or not Adam's decision was for himself or for his parents and congregation. I don't know that I've ever read such a short work of fiction (it was only 240 pages long) that gave me this much to think and talk and argue about. If nothing else, it was the perfect book club choice.

Content note: I'm sure it's fairly obvious from this review that this book touches on some mature themes (but nothing is graphic or detailed in any way, except that strange kiss I alluded to). Also, a little bit of language (including one F-word).


  1. This sounds like the perfect type of book for book club!

  2. Oh wow Amy, your review has impacted me too. So strong thoughts there, I loved this "Some of the decisions I made at seventeen, I would still make at thirty-one. But some I would not." and for goodness sake he was 3 months shy of 18, pretty close.
    " But what I saw was a boy who had a purpose, something to live (and die) for, and when it was no longer there, it was as if he was drifting on an open sea" Bingo, said perfectly

  3. Amy, I don't even know how I would begin writing a review of this book. As always, though, you did a great job! Definitely one of the most thought-provoking and enjoyable discussions we have had. I'm still mulling it over!

    1. I have no doubt you would write a totally compelling and insightful review of this book, Jen!


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