Set in Ireland of the 1950s and 1960s, the book begins as Marian learns that she is pregnant. While very much in love with her boyfriend, Ben, she is pressured by her uncle, a Catholic priest, and the reaction of her boyfriend’s parents on learning that she is not Jewish, into going to a home for unwed mothers. Since the women there are deemed to be sinners since they became pregnant out of wedlock, they are punished and shamed for this sin. Marian’s son is then taken from her and placed in an orphanage, rather than being adopted to an American couple as Marian is led to believe.
She then returns to Dublin and marries Ben. They have another child but both remain silent about Marian’s time away and their first child, until a woman from the home for unwed mothers seeks out Marian to let her know what has become of her first child. Marian and Ben try to get their child back, especially as they learn more about the abuse that the children suffer in the orphanages and later in industrial schools for the older children. After the death of his friend in the school, Marian and Ben become even more intent on removing him from the dangers of the school, even if they are unable to keep him with them, since they are unable to get legal custody despite being his biological parents. In addition, the boy shows behaviors common in institutionalized children, who often develop oppositional defiant disorder because those in charge of them have not shown them appropriate behaviors for living in a family. Marian feels tremendous guilt for allowing her firstborn to have been damaged in this way.
The novel exposes the scandal that Ireland had for many years imprisoned many of its citizens in the Magdalene laundries, industrial schools and psychiatric hospitals, with the complicity of the government and the Catholic Church. In these institutions, women and children were exposed to emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Should they try to escape, the police would return them. The novel helps to understand the experiences of those interred in such institutions.
A second theme is the bias of the time against intermarriage between those of different faiths in the conservative culture of Ireland. This placed additional stress on the relationship between Marian and Ben, as their families gradually come to accept that their marriage can work out. This pairing echoes the mixed background of the author.
Though the initial discovery of what has become of their son stresses the marriage, helping him to get out of the industrial school seems to bring Marian and Ben together. In addition, Marian’s uncle begins to question the system that he had supported, unaware of much of the abuse under the surface.
Fortunately, the Magdalene laundry system has ended in Ireland, but the scars it left on many of its victims linger. In addition, there are still millions of children worldwide who live in institutions simply because their parents cannot care for them.