Tag Archives: Ian McEwan


The Children Act is Ian McEwan’s latest novel. It takes place in London (where I read it!) and it’s about Fiona Maye, a family court judge who is facing simultaneous professional and personal crises. On the home front, her husband of 30+ years has told her that he wants to have an affair. He loves her, but he feels like the window of his own desirability is closing, and he wants to experience the thrill of new passion once more. Needless to say, Fiona is devastated and angry, and when her husband leaves their apartment that night, she has the locks changed and tries to focus on her work, despite her pain.

On the professional side, Fiona hears a consistent stream of cases involving divorces, custody battles, restraining orders and the like, some of which are difficult and some of which deal with greedy ex-spouses fighting over money. But one case  – which comes before her the day after her husband leaves – is much more agonizing. Fiona has to decide whether a 17 year-old with leukemia who has refused a blood transfusion due to his Jehovah’s Witness parents’ beliefs should be forced to have the life-saving treatment. She decides to go visit the boy – Adam – in the hospital, to see for herself whether Adam is acting on his own accord. Their meeting has a profound impact on both of them, and influences her decision in his case but also forces her to think about her role as a judge, especially at a time of deep insecurity in the rest of her life.

This is my fourth McEwan novel (after Atonement, On Chesil Beach, and Saturday). I LOVED Atonement (top 5 of all time), liked On Chesil Beach but found it odd, and wasn’t as impressed with Saturday. To be sure, McEwan is a beautiful writer. Just beautiful. In many ways, The Children Act read like a novella: it covered a pretty short period of Fiona’s life, but packed an emotional punch thanks to sharp detail and McEwan’s depth of writing. When I was in law school, I found the family law cases to be the most wrenching, often because both sides were equally compelling. McEwan did a nice job here of laying out the case and letting the reader appreciate its complexities. Fiona’s decision is made early enough in the novel that the case doesn’t take over the book; it is its aftermath that really propels the story.

I marked several passages as I was going through the book because of the sheer beauty of McEwan’s writing. I don’t think they will be as powerful out of context, so I won’t copy them here. But even on re-reading, I am still in awe.

Strong second read of 2015.

SATURDAY by Ian McEwan

Saturday by Ian McEwan is one of those books that I’ve seen around forever and thought I should read, but just hadn’t gotten to. I loved Atonement – it’s one of my top 5 favorite books of all time – and I thought On Chesil Beach was kind of odd (reviewed here in 2007), but that was the extent of my McEwan library. So when I found Saturday on audio at the library, I thought I’d give it a try.

I found the experience of reading Saturday to be frustratingly inconsistent.  I was alternately blown away by McEwan’s brilliant writing, and bored by too much detail, and frustrated with the self-satisfaction of Saturday‘s main character, neurosurgeon Henry Perowne – sometimes circling through these reactions within a single page. I loved this book at times, and other times I rolled my eyes at it.

Saturday takes place over one day in Perowne’s post-9/11 London life. It’s a Saturday, and he wakes up in the middle of the night, looks out the window, and sees a plane on fire coming in for a landing at Heathrow. That flight immediately conjures fears of the worst-case scenario in Perowne, who has become conditioned to a life accepting the inevitability of terrorism. Eventually, the truth behind the burning plane is revealed (not terrorism), and Perowne sets about his day – playing squash with a colleague, visiting his mother, who has dementia, preparing for the arrival of his daughter and father-in-law from out of town, and attending his son’s band practice. The one thing that doesn’t go according to plan is the minor car accident he gets into en route to the gym. The ensuing interchange with the driver of the other car is unsettling, and proves to have consequences for Henry and his family later in the day.

Henry’s life is a good one. He is an accomplished surgeon who saves lives through intricate handiwork. His marriage is strong and fulfilling. His children are gifted and attractive, and he is blessed with material wealth. Yadda yadda yadda. I got sort of tired of this – his faux humility edged with smugness and constant reminders about how wonderful his children and wife were. Even the curveball he is thrown at the end of the day – a scary one, to be sure – gives Henry a chance to shine and show what a magnanimous guy he is.


My other complaint is that there were times when McEwan just went overboard on the detail. The squash game, his son’s blues band’s rehearsal – I really didn’t care about the minutiae. Then again, I enjoyed the description of the neurosurgery, so maybe it’s a matter of personal interests. So some passages made me want to skip ahead, while others were deliciously meaty and rich.

And my god McEwan is insightful. There’s a passage at the end when Henry projects into the future, how his life will slide from middle age into years of progressive inactivity and distance from his current routine, which was incredibly poignant. And his descriptions of post-9/11 life  – seeing our lives through the prism of Islamic militants – swiftly conjured up the early 200s for me.

So Saturday was a mixed bag for me. High highs and low lows. I am certainly glad I read it, and will pursue McEwan again, I’m sure. But this one wasn’t a home run for me.

I listened to Saturday almost entirely on audio. The audio was very good – decent narrator, good British accent. I wish he’d talked a little faster – lots of needlessly long pauses between sentences. But it was a good audiobook.

Book vs. Movie: ATONEMENT

AtonementI saw "Atonement" tonight, which is the movie version of Ian McEwan’s wonderful book of the same name. I was kind of dreading seeing it, for two reasons: 1) it’s a sad story; and 2) I feared that the book couldn’t do the movie justice.

Well, the movie is as sad as the book, but the good news is that the movie is excellent and quite faithful to the book.  While a two hour movie could never adequately capture McEwan’s tremendous prose, nor his painstaking descriptions of wartime Britain, it makes a valiant effort to capture the various worlds that the book creates.  The movie of course hits on the book’s predominant themes of artistic license, the true meaning of atonement, and the definition of "truth," and, I predict, will be as memorable as the book was.

I won’t give away too much, for those who haven’t read the book and plan to see the movie. I will just say that Atonement fans shouldn’t be disappointed.

I’d love to hear from others who’ve read and seen Atonement – what do you think?


Atonement, by Ian McEwan, usually falls in my top 5 novels. It’s a beautifully told story of deception, romantic love, and poetic license – one that haunted me for weeks after I read it. (The movie is coming out soon, too, I believe – I have mixed feelings about it, because I don’t see how a movie can do the book justice). So I was curious to try another McEwan and opted for On Chesil Beach, a short novel about a British couple’s honeymoon night in the early 60s. It’s a good book, but an odd one, and I still haven’t decided exactly what I think of it.

Florence and Edward, a couple in their 20s, are a mismatched pair in almost every way. His beginnings were as modest as hers were comfortable. She’s an accomplished classical violinist; he’s a history major flailing around for a career.  He’s a country boy at heart who can name birds and wildflowers; she grew up in academia with a cold professor mother who withheld affection and a shrewd businessman for a father. Yet somehow they met and fell in love. The book opens on their wedding night, where perhaps their cruelest mismatch comes into play – he’s desperate to consummate their marriage while she lives in fear and revulsion at the idea of physical contact with a man. Clearly not a promising start.

No question that McEwan is a wonderful writer. I liked this passage, describing the early sixties when the couple met: “Edward and Florence’s shared sense that one day soon the country would be transformed for the better, that youthful energies were pushing to escape, like steam under pressure, merged with the excitement of their own adventure together. The sixties was their first decade of adult life, and it surely belonged to them.”

I found the book odd because I think it is a weird thing to write about (especially compared to the vast scope of Atonement) – this inexperienced couple’s inability to communicate, physically and, ultimately, emotionally, and the havoc this inabiity wrought on their marriage and future. That’s not to say I didn’t like it. The minute descriptions of their disastrous attempts at sex were riveting, as well as Florence and Edward’s idiosyncracies – her obsessive stewardship of her string quartet, his tendency to get into bar brawls, for example – they fleshed out the main characters in this short but satisfying book. Again, I’d like to know how McEwan got the idea for this book, how long the story was percolating in his mind before he had no choice but to commit it to paper. Did the plot have its unfortunate roots in his own life?

Ultimately, it’s a sad book, about how a lack of communication at the most crucial and sensitive of crossroads in life can have tragic and irreversible consequences.

Kristin at BooksforBreakfast gave On Chesil Beach a 2.75 out of 5. I think I’d up it to a 3.