Fiona Maye is a High Court judge in London presiding over cases in family court. She is fiercely intelligent, well respected, and deeply immersed in the nuances of her particular field of law. Often the outcome of a case seems simple from the outside, the course of action to ensure a child’s welfare obvious. But the law requires more rigor than mere pragmatism, and Fiona is expert in considering the sensitivities of culture and religion when handing down her verdicts.
But Fiona’s professional success belies domestic strife. Her husband, Jack, asks her to consider an open marriage and, after an argument, moves out of their house. His departure leaves her adrift, wondering whether it was not love she had lost so much as a modern form of respectability; whether it was not contempt and ostracism she really fears. She decides to throw herself into her work, especially a complex case involving a seventeen-year-old boy whose parents will not permit a lifesaving blood transfusion because it conflicts with their beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses. But Jack doesn’t leave her thoughts, and the pressure to resolve the case—as well as her crumbling marriage—tests Fiona in ways that will keep readers thoroughly enthralled until the last stunning page.
I really wanted to like this short novel because it’s written by Ian McEwan, but truthfully, I found it slow and dry.
The main character seems a little devoid of emotion, and maybe that’s the point (her husband wants her blessing to have an affair). But when she meets a child whose parents refuse a life-saving because of their religious beliefs, she still seems to have the personality of a stone.
The story weaves between the apparent breakdown of her marriage and the court case, and the most interesting and engaging part of the entire novel is the during the court case when she has to decide and justify her decision about forcing the boy to have a blood transfusion. Apart from that, the story just seems to plod along with short dialogue and a bit too much description.
The good thing about this novel is that it’s only 200 pages, so it’s easy to finish quite quickly. I’d recommend this novel to literary readers and McEwan fans. As for everybody else, keep in mind that this novel is good and it’s well written, but it’s not a page-turner – I could easily put it down for three days and pick it up again and not have it concern me. This book exists for the literary prose and the moral themes it unearths, not for the thrilling plot or interesting and relatable characters.