Today I am starting a new feature on the blog called the "Book of the Month." Each month I will highlight an outstanding book I have read and write a review. It may be a new book or a classic that deserves a revisit. I will continue to talk about books during the rest of the month, but this will be the stand-out book for me. I am hoping to hear from you about your recommendations and also how you liked this one. I realize that this is what we've been doing on the blog all along. I have gotten so many wonderful suggestions from you over the years. And thanks to many of you for your great tips last time on books set in Cornwall. I have already ordered titles by Rosamunde Pilcher and Mary Wesley. So here goes, the October Book of the Month!
What a pleasure it was to read Ian McEwan's most recent book. He is simply one of the best writers working today. His book The Children Act accomplishes so much in a relatively slim volume. It combines beautiful writing with provocative ideas, a compelling narrative and a fascinating central character. In fact, it is one of those books that offers so many topics for discussion that it just might be the best book club choice of the year. If you are in a book club, read this. I guarantee there will be multiple subjects to discuss -- marriage, religion, the law, children's rights -- just to name a few. There is a beautiful poem by Yeats that runs throughout; the lines are lyrical and haunting, capturing many of the qualities of the book. The poem is about regret which is one of the themes explored by Ian McEwan in this excellent book.
Fiona Maye is a High Court judge in the Family Division in London. She is brilliant, clear-headed, disciplined, analytical and highly respected. She is also a lover of music and poetry and a talented pianist. She has risen to the top tier of her field. Along the way she has made sacrifices. As the years passed by and her career flourished, there never seemed to be a good time to have children. She is suffering some regret on that account. And now her marriage is at a crossroads. In the opening chapter her husband delivers an ultimatum. He intends to have an affair with another woman unless their relationship improves. On the same night she receives a call about a 17-year old boy with advanced leukemia who is refusing a life-saving blood transfusion for religious reasons. He and his family are devout Jehovah's Witnesses. Fiona must rule on the boy's fate as well as decide what to do about her marriage. Along the way, she will make many other decisions as a judge as well as perform in a pivotal piano recital for her colleagues at Gray's Inn. It is one of those scene-stealers that take a book beyond the ordinary to extraordinary. My heart was pounding. How McEwan managed to write such a powerful book in just 213 pages is nothing short of miraculous.
Having a judge as its central character makes this book stand out from others. There are not many novels about judges. Fiona is a complicated character and her story helps us see the human side of the law. She handles family cases and spends a lot of time protecting the welfare of children. She needs to keep her mind sharp and have her analytical faculties in hand at all times. But she is also dealing with a crisis in her marriage. The tension is palpable. Mostly, she stays incredibly focused and professional. She is a lover of the arts and during her leisure time has a tendency to get carried away by a beautiful piece of music or poetry. The fact that she does not have children is often in her thoughts. It has created a gap in her life that seems to propel her towards the young man at the center of the medical case and boundaries get crossed. I spent most of the book marveling at what an extraordinary woman she was as she balanced so many balls in the air.
Ian McEwan does a skillful job depicting his character's inner life. Fiona's thoughts and preoccupations have a richness and authenticity. We learn the back story of her career and floundering marriage. Memories, laments, and meditations on her life and personal choices are seamlessly woven throughout. I felt that I knew this woman. The central theme of the book is powerful: judges have personal crises and distractions and yet are in charge of momentous decisions that can transform a person's life. In the case of the young man with leukemia, the decision can mean the difference between life and death. This is one of those books you won't forget. It will make you wonder "what would I have done"?