Ian McEwan's most recent novel, "The Children Act," opens with a marital scene.
"I need it," Jack tells his wife. "I'm fifty nine. This is my last shot. I've yet to hear evidence for an afterlife."
"Fifty nine?" his wife snaps. "Jack, you're sixty! It's pathetic, it's banal."
"Fiona, when did we last make love?" Suffice it to say, Fiona doesn't remember. Jack does. ("Seven weeks and a day.")
"I want to have this affair," he says. But not a divorce; Jack is not unhappy with their marriage.
"It's cozy and sweet and I love you, but before I drop dead, I want one big passionate affair," he tells her. "Ecstasy, almost blacking out with the thrill of it. Remember that? I want one last go, even if you don't."
Does Fiona want a last go? It's not clear, even to Fiona. She hasn't — until this moment — thought about it. And what Fiona really wants to do this evening when her husband brings all this up, is write the opinion that will go to the printers tomorrow morning. She's a judge who loves her work, in family court.
McEwan, in his recent shorter novels ("On Chesil Beach" is 203 pages, "The Children Act" 221) reveals an uncanny genius for plucking a resonant subject from the pages of lifestyle journalism and teasing it out into full scenes and then pressing them hard for their larger, enduring meanings. While there are numerous examples of tricked couplings and stolen virginities from Shakespeare and Cervantes on, and many detailed accounts of sex (starting with Ulysses and perhaps culminating in Harold Brodkey's "Innocence") I don't think I'd ever, before "Chesil Beach," read a prolonged scene of a wedding night between two virgins.
In "The Children Act," McEwan takes on the midlife crisis. And just as in the earlier book, he puts his characters in a circumstance about which we have a lifetime's worth of assumptions. Much of the reader's pleasure derives from the expansion, dissection, analysis and revelation of what we thought we already knew — and more comes from overturning our expectations.
This husband and wife in "The Children Act" are privileged (on the first page, we see their scene of marital unhappiness play out in an apartment with a Bokhara rug on wide polished floorboards, near a grand piano), they're cultivated (he's a classicist, she's a judge, they both love opera, Keith Jarrett and traveling) and childless.
"You know I love you," he says.
"But you'd like someone younger," she replies.
"I'd like a sex life."
This, McEwan writes, was "[h]er cue to make warm promises, draw him back to her, apologize for being busy or tired or unavailable. But she looked away and said nothing. She was not going to dedicate herself under pressure to revive a sensual life she had at that moment no taste for."
Fiona does the expected thing: She says no. Jack can't have the marriage and "this affair" and he walks out. So far, predictable. Then, McEwan does the harder thing. He follows the woman and explores her midlife journey. For several books, McEwan has been working his tool kit to understand gender from the inside. (His last short book, "Sweet Tooth," was a playful riff on these very efforts.)
McEwan renders Fiona's feelings of abandonment in fresh terms: "[T]here was age. Not the full withering, not just yet, but its early promise was shining through, just as one might catch in a certain light a glimpse of the adult in a ten year old's face."
He takes time to mark the fine delineations within the marriage, as she assesses why she wants to be married. "She couldn't, she did not intend to, manage the rest of her life alone. Two close friends her age, long deprived by divorce of their husbands, still hated to enter a crowded room unaccompanied."
Her intelligence works against self-pity as she finds herself "wondering again whether it was not love she had lost so much as a modern form of respectability, whether it was not contempt and ostracism she feared, as in the novels of Flaubert and Tolstoy, but pity. To be the object of social pity was also a form of social death. The nineteenth century was closer than most women thought."
The husband's affair peters out fairly early in the story, with a short, quiet fizzle, and for the rest of the book, we follow Fiona's own midlife affair, which takes a completely uncharted form.
In her work in family court, "she believed she brought reasonableness to hopeless situations." She believes in the law and finds "common themes" in the many sorrows she encounters.
She becomes involved in a case of a young man who refuses a blood transfusion, for religious reasons, and whose parents support him in this choice. Fiona takes the unconventional step of going to the hospital to meet the dying boy. They strike up a relationship. He reads her his poems. She decides for the hospital to force the transfusion so that he will live.
McEwan's inhabitation of a female sensibility is largely successful, though, at one moment, she comes out in a dress for her annual amateur concert and her returned husband, Jack, says, "Here's to living… Concerning which, the dress is fabulous. You look beautiful." And I realize this element of the portrait is a little off — not once, during this novel about a 59-year-old woman being left by her husband, does she book a facial, or think about a dress, a shoe or her hair. But this is a momentary reservation in a quietly exhilarating book.
This short novel does a particularly hard thing: It chronicles the recalibration of a 30-year marriage after it has fallen out of balance. Each of the two people strays to fulfill a need they don't share and the story resolves in a conversation after an amateur musical performance, in an homage to Joyce's "The Dead." While Jack wanted to have an affair, he realizes his wife has fallen in love.
Marriage, like this book, McEwan seems to believe, begins and ends with a hard, true conversation.
Simpson is the author, most recently, of "Casebook."
The Children Act
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: 221 pp., $25