Can a marriage be saved following infidelity? Is it okay to cheat if a marriage has become sexless? If infidelity is discovered and a couple wants to stay together, how do they find their way through? Such questions are frequently raised in couples therapy if one or both partners have strayed. Ian McEwan’s 2014 novel, The Children Act, offers a sophisticated and complex window into the inner psychological world of a woman whose husband has openly told her he plans to stray.
The Children Act is about much more than marital monogamy, infidelity, and the private workings of a marriage behind closed doors. The novel’s protagonist, Fiona Maye, is a respected and revered judge with several high profile rulings under her belt. Fiona must decide the fate of a teenager with leukemia who is refusing treatment in accordance with the beliefs of his family who are practicing Jehovah’s Witnesses. As she struggles to focus on this complicated case in spite of an array of feelings about her husband’s sudden musings, McEwan demonstrates the tricky relationship between an intimate marriage and meaningful work:
“She should be angrier, she should be taking to an old friend – she had several – she should be striding into the bedroom, demanding to know more. But she felt shrunken to a geometrical point of anxious purpose. Her judgement must be ready for printing by tomorrow’s deadline, she must work. Her personal life was nothing. Or should have been. Her attention remained divided between the page in her hand and, fifty feet away, the closed bedroom door.”
The most significant truth about marital infidelity that Fiona’s journey reveals is that while couples can and do get through it (and even come out stronger on the other side) infidelity is not forgettable. It lingers and resurfaces and usually necessitates the reshaping of a marriage. McEwan’s novel will not answer the myriad of questions that those struggling with infidelity long to resolve; however, the plot refuses gratuitous solutions while remaining emotionally complex and engaging. While unsettling, The Children Act is worthwhile reading for those struggling with infidelity and even for those who feel they may stray.