“…perfectly formed life, equally contingent, equally without purpose. Blind luck, to arrive in the world with your properly formed parts in the right place, to be born to parents who were loving, not cruel, or to escape, by geographical or social accident, war or poverty. And therefore to find it so much easier to be virtuous.”
I love Ian McEwan, so I was thrilled when this book was chosen for our book club selection. I dove in right away, and wasn’t disappointed for a minute. The prose is crisp and tight and oh so delicious, the main character of Fiona is so very human and flawed and relatable and makes you angry and makes you want to shake her and makes you feel empathy and makes you want to shake your head at her, and the plot is intense and timely and so well laid out that you can easily lose yourself in this book and forget to look up til it’s three in the morning.
This was a quick read for me; two sittings and I was done.
The book centers on Fiona, a judge in Great Britain who sits on the Queen’s Bench in family court. She is a sensible, practical woman who has led a sensible, practical life and hands down logical and well-thought out decisions on horrifyingly awful and dramatic cases that involve people in the worst circumstances of their lives.
“A story best told at speed. After finals, more exams, then the call to the bar, pupillage, a lucky invitation to prestigious chambers, some early success defending hopeless cases—how sensible it had seemed, to delay a child until her early thirties. And when those years came, they brought complex worthwhile cases, more success. Jack was also hesitant, arguing for holding back another year or two. Mid-thirties then, when he was teaching in Pittsburgh and she worked a fourteen-hour day, drifting deeper into family law as the idea of her own family receded, despite the visits of nephews and nieces. In the following years, the first rumors that she might be elected precociously to the bench and required to be on circuit. But the call didn’t come, not yet. And in her forties, there sprang up anxieties about elderly gravids and autism. Soon after, more young visitors to Gray’s Inn Square, noisy demanding great-nephews, great-nieces, reminded her how hard it would be to squeeze an infant into her kind of life. Then rueful thoughts of adoption, some tentative inquiries—and throughout the accelerating years that followed, occasional agonies of doubt, firm late-night decisions concerning surrogate mothers undone in the early-morning rush to work. And when at last, at nine thirty one morning at the Royal Courts of Justice, she was sworn in by the Lord Chief Justice and took her oath of allegiance and her Judicial Oath before two hundred of her bewigged colleagues, and she stood proudly before them in her robes, the subject of a witty speech, she knew the game was up; she belonged to the law as some women had once been brides of Christ.”
All that being practical and logical and trying to be the calm in the midst of emotional storms has left her private life in ruins. Her husband would do anything just to get a bit of emotion out of her. He lays an ultimatum at her feet that would make most wives cry, or scream, or at least notice, but Fiona has work to do, because she has a big case coming up. So, she goes back to her paperwork while her husband slides out the door.
The case involves a teenager with leukemia who has refused life-saving treatment because of an admonition against receiving blood products by his religion.
“Do you know when Jehovah’s Witnesses were commanded to refuse blood transfusions?” “It’s set down in Genesis. It dates from the Creation.” “It dates from 1945, Mr. Henry. Before then it was perfectly acceptable.”
Though the teen is months from turning eighteen, he’s still a minor, and his parents refuse to consent to treatment. The hospital insists on it. Fiona has to make the choice, which will determine whether he lives or dies.
This is an excellent book. The theme is heavy on consequences of the choices we make in our lives, and how little we can often see what the end results will be down the road. It’s about taking responsibility for those choices and being able to stand behind them, or what happens if we simply abandon those choice and refuse to acknowledge that because we’ve played a part in someone’s life on this earth, that we are connected to them now.
It’s heartbreaking. It’s not a book I sobbed reading, as I will do sometimes – if you read my reviews you know what an emotional reader I can be. But it leaves you with that achy, heart ripped out of your chest feeling in the end. It’s a book that takes a little time to digest, and I was really happy to have people to discuss it with after!