I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: There’s something reassuring about an author who’s written dozens of books. You know that what you’re going to read will at least be gripping, or romantic, or funny, or (oh holy grail of avid readers) well-written. Probably. Let’s just say the odds of it being total crap are diminished.
Jodi Picoult has written dozens of books. Ok, well, fourteen, which is 1.17 dozens. As near as I can figure, she pokes around until she finds the most loaded topic a four-hundred-page novel can handle, and then goes for it with her gloves off. School shootings, date rape, faith healings, child abuse, mercy killings, secret Amish pregnancies…my word, woman. John Steinback isn’t this bleak, and he wrote The Pearl, possibly the most wrist-slitting novella ever put to page.
Ok, so what’s the most gruelling choice a parent can make? Choosing between two of their kids, right? And not just, like, which of them gets the last Fun Size Twix, and which of them has to make due with the crappy licorice, but which one of them gets to live. The novel begins with Anna Fitzgerald suing her parents for medical emancipation. Anna is what you call a test-tube baby, but she wasn’t genetically tinkered to have blue eyes or huge boobs or an 200 IQ. She was created as a perfect donor for her 2-year-old sister, Kate, who has leukemia. It started as a stem-cell donation from Anna’s umbilical cord, something she wouldn’t feel and would never miss anyways, but as Kate experienced relapse after relapse, Anna was ‘asked’ to give up lymphocytes and granulocytes and bone marrow to save her sister’s life. Now, at the age of fourteen, Anna is being asked to donate something much less replaceable: her kidney. If she doesn’t, sixteen-year-old Kate will die.
Picoult has created a very sticky problem for the Mr and Mrs Fitzgerald here. On the one hand, you have a dying child; on the other hand, you have a child you’ve been mostly treating as an organ-field for her fourteen years of life who is now suing you for control over her own body. Do you give it to her, and hope she’ll do the ‘right thing’ (offer up one of her kidneys on a golden platter) or do you pull rank and demand that she hand over that kidney or go straight to her room. Without dessert.
With her revolving door of viewpoints, Picoult manages to come at this from every angle. It would be easy to villify the parents in a story like this, but you can’t do that if every third chapter or so is being told by one of the parents (who don’t, necessarily, agree with each other). Toss in some chapters voiced by Campbell, the lawyer, and a few from Julia, the guardian ad litem who’s been assigned to help Anna make an informed decision about…hold on. What the deuce? Julia and Campbell used to shack up? And broke up in a mysterious and heart-breaking manner? And now there’s all sorts of sexual tension between them? Aw man. This is totally unnecessary.
Picoult has a page-turning, thought-provoking story going here, but it could do without the conveniently awkward ex-factor. It could also do with half the clever similes and contrived imagery. There’s a fine line between a well-crafted, evocative sentence and a sledgehammer, and Picoult falls too often on the wrong side of that line. This book is really quite good, and I actually will recommend it to people (even though from the cover photos, all her books appear to be cheesy teen romances [see: Nineteen Minutes] and I would be embarrassed to read one on the bus), but it gets bogged down by its own poeticism.
Still, you get used to it, and by the time you’re halfway through, you skim right over lines like ‘a smile toasts her face’ and ‘the smile of a child is a tattoo: indelible art’ without even flinching. Any book that can make me forget how cringy its wording is must have a story worth making a movie out of, and hey, look! Someone did! So if you don’t feel like reading this, just wait for the movie. In the meantime, maybe check out one of Picoult’s thirteen other books, and tell me what you think.
As for this one, seven caterpillars.