Fiona Maye is a respected judge who handles family law cases in the London High Court. As the book opens, her husband of 35 years has just announced that he is planning to sleep with a young woman named Melanie (Fiona cannot help making a connection between the woman's name and the similarly titled fatal skin cancer). Jack does not want a divorce; he just wants to have passionate sex--and he and Fiona have not slept together for seven weeks and a day.
Those seven weeks correspond to the time that has passed since Fiona had to hand down a decision in a difficult case involving conjoined twins: doctors argued for surgery that would save one twin but mean certain death for the other, the parents did not want surgery, even though both children would die without it. Fiona authorized the surgery, but the case spawned death threats and nightmares that had oppressed Fiona for weeks.
The very night that Jack announces his adulterous intentions, Fiona learns of another life-and-death case she will have to decide. Adam, a 17-year-old Jehovah's Witness, needs a transfusion for his leukemia therapies to work, but he and his parents are opposed on religious grounds. Fiona decides to meet Adam before she makes a decision, and their meeting begins an entanglement that will have serious ramifications Fiona must cope with as she also tries to put her marriage back together.
The intertwining stories of marriage, religion, and parenting (Jack and Fiona are childless) are perhaps not as complex as the story lines in other McEwan works, but there is plenty of moral ambiguity, not to mention sociological and psychological dilemmas, to ponder. Perhaps even more importantly, there is McEwan's lovely prose. He combines sentence fragments and short statements with amazingly complex sentences--often featuring lists, appositives, and piled-on descriptors--in a way that allows the reader to understand the shattered thoughts of a woman in crisis as well as the complex ideas she grapples with as a highly intelligent woman of the law.
Lately, he was looking taller, easier in his movements. While his back was turned to her she had a cold premonition of rejection, of the humiliation of being left for a young woman, of being left behind, useless and alone. She wondered if she should simply go along with anything he wanted, then rejected the thought.
It was her impression, though the facts did not bear it out, that in the late summer of 2012, marital or partner breakdown and distress in Great Britain swelled like a freak spring tide, sweeping away entire households, scattering possessions and hopeful dreams, drowning those without a powerful instinct for survival. Loving promises were denied or rewritten, once easy companions became artful combatants crouching behind counsel, oblivious to the costs. Once neglected domestic items were bitterly fought for, once easy trust was replaced by carefully worded "arrangements." In the minds of the principals, the history of the marriage was redrafted to have been always doomed, love was recast as delusion.