This was vintage Picoult with a bit of a twist, although not in the tale, but in the structure. Picoult always takes on a big controversial issue and extensively examines it, but never taking sides. Her characters are clearly on opposing sides, but sometimes they gain empathy for each other and find in their own stance something that might be questionable, thus maturing in their own understanding. Seeing something from someone else’s point of view is something that sadly seems to have gone missing in our world today.
In this case the issue is abortion and the novel begins with a shooting/hostage-taking at an abortion clinic. The author describes the event and then backs up an hour in time every chapter after that, leaving the epilogue to explain a few things, not even all, (which is kind of a cheap trick in this case because the novel is going back in time the reader has no choice but to hang in there, or skip to the end). It’s a different sort of structure for Picoult, perhaps she was trying to break out of a formulaic box. At any rate, in this case, I found the reverse timeline made the book drag on because all of the action had taken place at the beginning and the rest was backstory. Interesting, but not very compelling, and I felt that it resulted in too much dwelling on and rehashing of the tragic attack which made the book unnecessarily traumatic. Picoult is known also for a breathtaking twist, but again, in this one the only twist was small and predictable. However, the ‘Author’s Note’ at the end of the book was excellent, where in essay form, she discusses abortion in the US and the wider world. Clearly her research was thorough as usual, but it didn’t translate into an amazing story for me this time.
“If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” Martin Luther King
Small Great Things is vintage Picoult–suspense, empathy, and humour used to great effect. Picoult doesn’t stray much from her usual formula. She typically examines an issue from all angles with the use of multiple character voices, creating tension around a conflict, moral dilemmas, and possible outcomes. Why change a highly effective strategy if it results in an engaging novel? Even though I find some of her writing a bit cliché she does her research well and I have found all of her novels to be ‘page-turners-plus’, evoking reflection and good discussion as well as being a compelling read. Her books are perfect for book clubs. It is obvious that she is very passionate about this particular topic which has resulted in a very good story and a very important conversation about race, prejudice, privilege, and justice.
The novel deals with racism, white supremacy, and hate crimes in the United States. Because of the prevailing political climate in the US surrounding the last election, this is a timely topic indeed and feels very close to current events. The story begins when a white couple have their first baby in hospital and refuse the care of a black neonatal nurse. A tragedy ensues, setting off a legal battle full of courtroom drama.
Picoult gives voice to three people who round out the story: the black nurse, the white supremacist, and the defence lawyer. Picoult humbly points out that no matter how non-racist some white people may feel they are, racism is still rampant in North American society. She digs deep to discover and reveal painful truths such as how much easier it is for bad white people to hide behind the colour of their skin, than for good people of colour to be regarded as good.
Jenna knows that her mother disappeared years ago from an elephant sanctuary where her parents both worked. One of the employees was trampled to death by an elephant one night, and her mother was found unconscious nearby. She was brought to hospital but checked herself out and was gone before morning. No one knew what had happened that fateful night, or why her mother left without taking her or telling anyone where she went.
Picoult’s popular bestsellers are well researched, engagingly plotted, a bit formulaic and cliché, but always entertaining. This time she has done something different. Her usual formula is to take an issue and explore all of the various angles of it through the eyes of different characters. Only this time it’s not an issue, it’s a mystery. And the research and information is all about elephants, so if you are not into pachyderms, you might want to take a pass. One of the characters is a psychic so the element of communicating with the dead is added to the story as well. This makes for a pairing of two unlikely subjects (paranormal activity and elephant behaviour), but Picoult pulls it off. The book has numerous twists and turns and will keep you guessing to the very end.
I must admit to having a soft spot for elephants. We were blessed by living in close proximity to them for years in Tanzania and had many opportunities to observe them and many stories to tell of encounters with them. One weekend get-away destination for our family was a tented camp where elephants would often graze around our tents or visit us by the poolside. Once while lounging on a sunbed, I heard our youngest who was a toddler then, utter a new word for her: “tembo” (Swahili for elephant). When I looked up, sure enough, there she stood gazing at the magnificent animal before her.
The paranormal and elephant behaviour are not normally subjects paired together, but oddly they did coincide for me once before, and it makes for a very funny story I cannot resist to tell. My sister, who was at that time working for a parapsychology institute in Holland, had found me a homeopath to consult since I was struggling with a health issue. This healer wanted to determine what my “spirit animal” was, so that I could think about that and get well from the understanding it would give me. Well, from the consultation I learned that my spirit animal was a matriarchal elephant which was hilarious considering my health issue was chronic sinusitis!
Picoult is passionate about the plight of elephant populations worldwide. Elephants are in danger of extinction because of the value of ivory in the marketplace. She is hoping that the support of books such as hers and protection organizations that she endorses, will make a difference.
Some people find Picoult’s novels to be increasingly formulaic and predictable, as she seems to crank out a new one every year. I actually tend to stick up for her novels, saying that she does deal with thought-provoking issues and is an expert at capturing differing points of view. So even though I am an avid Picoult fan, this latest book was rather a disappointment for me. To be honest the book fell flat and was not convincing, believable, or developed enough, except for the flashback Holocaust section in the middle which was well done.
Although Picoult’s theme in ‘The Storyteller’ purports to be about mercy and forgiveness, I found the way that those were manifested in the ending of the story to be flawed. What she says about forgiveness is true: “forgiveness isn’t something you do for someone, it’s something you do for yourself.” But how the main character decides to forgive left me cold. I knew from an interview with the author that there was a big twist coming at the end and when I got there I realized I had predicted it long ago, so even in that…no cigar. Unfortunately I can’t be more specific about my issues with this novel, because I would have to include spoilers. I also found the gothic tale that runs alongside the main story to be awkward and unhelpful.
Sage Singer has secrets and is troubled and scarred both physically and emotionally. She becomes a baker, not so much because that profession runs in her family and she is good at it, but because it allows her to hide in the daytime and work at night. Sage befriends an old man who has dark secrets of his own and at the same time she learns that her grandmother is a survivor in more ways than one. The number tattooed on her grandmother’s forearm is a left over from Auschwitz.
By the way, the first printing of this book has the inside cover inscribed with many names and before I read the dedication at the front of the book, I had assumed it was a list of those those whose lives were lost in concentration camps. That would have been meaningful considering the topic of the book. They actually are names of her UK fans, probably one of the reasons the book is flying off the shelves here. Unfortunately that smacks of a publisher trying to boost sales and didn’t quite sit right with me in the context of a weighty subject like the tragedies of the second world war.
Her next one will be about elephants and grief and I am looking forward to reading it.
Jodi Picoult is one of those famous authors whose name is printed larger than the title on the cover of a book. Many have read at least one of her bestselling novels. She is a master at taking a difficult issue, representing all aspects of it through her character’s perspectives, and delivering a good storyline with lots of plot and conflict.
‘Between the Lines’ is Picoult’s first young adult novel and it is unique because she wrote it together with her teenage daughter Samantha. What they set out to write was a timeless, ageless, old fashioned fairy tale with a modern romantic twist for a new generation. It would be visually pleasing as well, with beautiful illustrations and a story that would stand the test of time. In this I think they succeeded except that I think the target audience would be younger than typical YA age, more like 9 – 12 range.
In the introduction Picoult writes about how she and her daughter worked together on the novel, not only doing the hard work of imagining how the story would be written and where it would go, but taking turns typing and saying most of the lines out loud.
Imagine if characters had a life of their own when the reader wasn’t around? And what if the characters were tired of being stuck in a story that always had the same ending? What if the reader could help a character escape? This of course is fantasy. By definition a fantasy is imagining the impossible or improbable. Fantasy is important, especially for children. It allows children to vicariously experience things like love, longing, fear, failure, anger etc., all in a safe environment so they can wonder about how they themselves would react.
Picoult says her fans asked her to write something for their children, to introduce them to her writing until they were old enough to handle her heavier adult books. She has delivered, and this one will live happily ever after with all of her other novels.
Picoult has always been one of my favourite authors, I’ve almost read all she’s ever written. Her popularity has grown steadily and her books are translated into many languages. I just heard her speak in London at the BBC and she packed a large auditorium with fans. She spoke very well and obviously loves what she does.
As always, Picoult did her research well on the three issues of this book: wolf behaviour, organ donation, and end of life issues. However, as a novel I found this one fell a bit flat and seemed formulaic. All of her books include multiple narrators, tricky family relationships, a tragedy, a few twists and turns, some medicine and a court case. There is usually the hope of a miracle involved and some questions which are left unanswered until the very end. All of this usually makes for an enjoyable read, especially because she weaves a provocative topic into this formula and that makes each book a little different. ‘Lone Wolf’ for me was a bit cliché and not nearly as creative as some of her earlier novels, despite the interesting insight into wolf behaviour.
I am really looking forward to her latest novel which has just come out called ‘Between the Lines’ which is a young adult novel and was co-authored with her daughter Samantha Van Leer.
A story about whom we love
Who we are
And how we define a family
Jodi Picoult has done it again. She takes an issue, looks at it from a number of different angles, and sensitively tells a story that is captivating and educational. The usual Picoult formula is there, but not unpleasantly so, with different characters telling the story from their perspectives, something medical, a legal battle, and then there is a surprise at the end.
Sing You Home is about gay rights in America and she captures many sides of the debate. Her son actually ‘came out’ to her while she was writing the book, which enhanced the reading for me. Here is Picoult on how that came about.
This book comes with a whole CD of songs written to accompany the novel. Picoult wrote the songs but her friend performs them as if it is the main character Zoe singing them. Zoe is a music therapist and it is like she is sharing her art and skill in her work in this way. Music therapy is a remarkable profession that I knew very little about, and I enjoyed learning more. There was also a lot of information about IVF and what a stressful process that can be. And there is the question of what is a family in our world today? With the reality of blended families created by divorce and remarriage, same-sex marriage and adoption, there may be more variations of family than we have traditionally seen.
No matter where you stand on the issue of gay rights, it is the personal stories of people whom you know that make all the difference. When you get away from politics and religion, you realize that it is simply about people who want the things that most of us want: a home, a family, and a loving relationship. Therefore, I will not say anything more and let you discover the story as it unfolds.
After you read the book and would like to know more, Jodi has an extensive conversation which I have included here as background information. It is long but very, very well written, explaining where the ideas for the book originated and explaining how she did her research.
The story behind Sing You Home