READERS GUIDEThroughout his award-winning career, literary master Ian McEwan has used the art of fiction to deftly illuminate the human experience. In The Children Act, he raises compelling questions about the role of religion in the modern world, in a mesmerizing novel that also probes the faith we place in one another. Fiona Maye is a leading High Court judge, called upon to try an urgent case: for religious reasons, a beautiful seventeen-year-old boy, Adam, is refusing the medical treatment that could save his life, and his devout parents echo his wishes. In the course of reaching a decision, Fiona visits Adam in the hospital. The encounter stirs long-buried feelings as she confronts the lingering regret of her childlessness, and the fact that her thirty-year marriage is in crisis. Her judgment and its aftermath will have momentous consequences for her future as well as Adam’s.
We hope that the following topics will enrich your reading group’s discussion.
IntroductionFiona Maye is a leading High Court judge who presides over cases in the family court. She is renowned for her fierce intelligence, exactitude, and sensitivity. But her professional success belies private sorrow and domestic strife. There is the lingering regret of her childlessness, and now her marriage of thirty years is in crisis.
At the same time, she is called on to try an urgent case: Adam, a beautiful seventeen-year-old boy, is refusing for religious reasons the medical treatment that could save his life, and his devout parents echo his wishes. Time is running out. Should the secular court overrule sincerely expressed faith? In the course of reaching a decision, Fiona visits Adam in the hospital—an encounter that stirs long-buried feelings in her and powerful new emotions in the boy. Her judgment has momentous consequences for them both.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. How did The Children Act affect your perception of family courts? What makes it so challenging for parents and the courts alike to follow the deceptively simple mandate that “the child’s welfare shall be the . . . paramount consideration”?
2. How would you react if your spouse made a proposal like Jack’s? Is Jack’s interest in Melanie purely sexual? When he asserts that couples in long marriages lose passion, is he right?
3. How would you have ruled in the first case described in The Children Act, regarding the education of Rachel and Nora Bernstein? Does Fiona approach religious freedom the same way in her ruling for Adam’s case?
4. How did your impression of Adam and his parents shift throughout the novel? How does his childhood exposure to religion compare to your own?
5. At the heart of Adam’s testimony is a definition of scripture, secured by faith in his religious leaders to interpret scripture perfectly. How should the government and the court system consider religious texts?
6. Both Jack and Adam are drawn to romantic ideals, albeit at opposite stages of life. Are their dreams reckless or simply passionate?
7. As Fiona reflects on her life, which choices bring her solace? How does she reconcile her childlessness with her notions of the ideal woman? How does her personal history affect her decisions in court?
8. Discuss Fiona’s sojourn to Newcastle. What is she pursuing on that journey? What is Adam pursuing when he follows her there?
9. What does “The Ballad of Adam Henry” (page 187) reveal about the nature of youth, and the nature of mortality?
10. What is Fiona able to experience through music that she can’t access any other way? For Mark (possibly with a new lover to impress), and for the Gray’s Inn community, what is the significance of the Great Hall concerts?
11. In the novel’s closing scene, what transformations do Jack and Fiona undergo?
12. How does The Children Act enhance your experience of Ian McEwan’s previous novels? What is unique about the way his characters approach moral dilemmas?
13. Explore a few of the recordings of Benjamin Britten’s setting for “Down by the Salley Gardens” that are available online. How do the melody and the verses affect you? In your experience, what does it mean to take love and life “easy”?
About this AuthorIAN McEWAN is the bestselling author of fifteen books, including the novels Sweet Tooth;Solar, winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize; On Chesil Beach; Saturday;Atonement, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the W. H. Smith Literary Award; The Comfort of Strangers and Black Dogs, both short-listed for the Booker Prize;Amsterdam, winner of the Booker Prize; and The Child in Time, winner of the Whitbread Award; as well as the story collections First Love, Last Rites, winner of the Somerset Maugham Award, and In Between the Sheets. Born in Aldershot, England, McEwan lives in Gloucestershire.