Jodi Picoult, as many of you know, is one of my favorite authors of all time. I’m not sure which of her books I read first- The Pact or Nineteen Minutes– but since then, I’ve hungrily read everything by her that I could get my hands on, and currently own every novel she has published.
When others ask me what author I recommend, she is the first one I mention because her writing is relatable to so many demographics of readers. Picoult knows how to write a page turner, complete with uncomfortable controversy that squarely reflects current affairs and heavy hitting topics. Often, her plots involve family relationships and drama, court cases, thrilling action, and satisfying conclusions- an excellent formula that attracts many readers.
As a fellow New Englander, Picoult has always been a source I point to when asked where my love of reading began. Not only could I relate to many of her characters and settings, but I felt that I could to relate to this author, who clearly understood what I wanted in a novel. So, as I’ve said a million times, if you haven’t read Jodi Picoult, you must.
Published: February 2013, Atria
Trigger Warning: This novel and review discuss the following: war crimes, nazis, socialism, death, murder.
Sage Singer is a baker at Our Daily Bread with a strong case of survivor’s guilt. Facially and mentally scarred by the accident that eventually took her mother’s life, Sage prefers to keep to the shadows. As a descendant of Jews (though she’s renounced her religion) who endured (or succumbed) to the Holocaust, she has carried on their traditional bread making and baking using recipes passed down from her family. One afternoon near closing time, a little old man is chatting with the bakery owner (a reformed nun, hence the clever shop name), and Sage recognizes him from her grief support group- Josef.
Josef Weber (also known as Reiner Hartmann) is a ninety-five year old grandfather figure in the community. He worked in the school system, coached T-ball, adored his late wife, and could often been seen about town walking his Dachshund, Eva. He befriends Sage, and they find that the pasts they’ve omitted from conversation come bubbling to the surface. Soon, they are comfortable confidants, until Josef asks the impossible of her, revealing a shameful secret. Unsure how to handle the new burden of Josef’s admission, Sage delves into the past to find out what to do in the present.
Sage’s grandmother, Minka, is a survivor in more ways than one. Sage has been careful not to pry into her past, but Minka may be able to help Sage decide what to do about Josef, if she can bear to let her memories resurface. With some careful prodding, Minka shares not only the terror of German occupation and her horrific experience in Auschwitz, but also the story that saved her life and gave hope to many others.
As I’ve said a million times, Picoult hooked me in the very beginning of the novel, and kept me turning the pages to find out what would happen to all these characters. Using a variation of her traditional multiple-POV style, Picoult gives each character a chance to tell their story. I have read many World War II novels, and not a single one is easy to fathom- The Storyteller is no exception. The brutality, starvation, and exploitation of innocent men, women, and children is described in sinister detail. I found that though I kept turning the pages, it was difficult to read much in one sitting due to the depressing content. Even so, it’s a great novel, and I enjoyed the conclusion. I would certainly recommend it to Picoult, historical fiction, and WWII buffs alike.
Small Great Things
Published: October 2016, Ballantine Books
Trigger Warning: This novel and review discuss the following: relationships, racism, white supremacy, prejudice, privilege, death.
Ruth Jefferson is a labor and delivery nurse of twenty years, single mother of a straight-A student, and a well-educated, hard-working woman. Her mother, a domestic to a wealthy television personality’s family, gave her every opportunity she could to further Ruth’s education and independence. When Ruth found out she was pregnant while her husband was overseas fighting in the war on Afghanistan, she was determined to give her child the same opportunities to be successful and then some- anything to help overcome the imminent obstacles from racial profiling.
Turk Bauer is a new father to baby Davis, husband of Brittany, and son-in-law to infamous white supremacist Francis Mitchum. His childhood was rocky, to say the least. His father left the family when Turk was young, his brother was killed in a car accident, and his mother drank herself into a stupor that eventually left her dead. Lost and angry, Turk befriends followers of the Mitchums, learns the ways of white supremacists, and eventually marries into the Mitchum family. At the hospital with new baby Davis, the last thing Turk wants to see is nurse Ruth coming into the hospital room, examining his child and wife. As soon as she’s done, Davis’ file is slapped with a Post-it:
“NO AFRICAN-AMERICAN PERSONNEL TO CARE FOR THIS PATIENT.”
When baby Davis goes into cardiac arrest with only Ruth available to help, Ruth has to decide- disobey orders to try to save the baby’s life, or watch on as he’s unable to breathe and do nothing.
Following a typical Picoult plot, the situation plays out in court and the reader gets to see every facet of the argument with points of view from all the characters involved. I have always loved this about Picoult’s books, because she easily allows the reader to slip into the first person narrative from one character to the next. Reading from Ruth’s point of view, I find myself cringing at the blasé comments from Ruth’s white coworkers, and near tears when she is arrested maliciously in the middle of the night. Despite all that she has done to blend in, she still sticks out. She unknowingly surrounded herself with people in denial, not acceptance, of her color. When reading from Turk’s point of view, I absolutely despised him, even when I found that I was pitying him. His childhood was terrible, the situation with his son was terrible… but his anger and strife fueled hate, and he never sought to rise above, only to get even.
Throughout the novel, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable as privilege and race are discussed. Picoult mentioned in her Author’s Note:
“Why was writing about a person of color any different? Because race is different. Racism is different. It’s fraught, and it’s hard to discuss, and so as a result we often don’t.”
These days, it’s easy enough to go on any social media outlet and find heated discussions on racism, but to actually discuss racism from an educational standpoint, without personal or political bias, is difficult. I applaud Picoult for encouraging these discussions in a thought-provoking manner, for writing this book, for helping others open their eyes and truly see color, rather than ignore it. Small Great Things is absolutely a must read, and another that belongs on all bookshelves.
A Spark of Light
Published: October 2018, Ballantine Books
Trigger Warning: This novel and review discuss the following: gunman, hostage situation, shooting, abortion, women rights, feminism, violence, death.
In her traditional style, Picoult tackles the current (or should I say continuous?) controversy that is abortion from multiple points of view. However, this novel’s format is a little different than her norm. In A Spark of Light, the plot is revealed in reverse chronological order, going back in time throughout the course of the day. Also breaking stylistic Picoult, each character gets their own prose section within a chapter, instead of their own chapter. These stylistic changes took me some time to get used to, but I think it worked really well for the novel in helping slow the very fast-paced plot. At times, the information is a little redundant, but Picoult has used this method to slowly peel back layer upon layer of details that aid in character and conflict development.
The novel starts out at 5pm in the only abortion clinic in the state of Mississippi. There is an active shooter holding hostages, and Hugh McElroy is there to negotiate with the shooter to try and save as many lives as possible. The shooter, George, has stormed the clinic for revenge for his daughter, a woman who recently had an abortion. Then there’s Wren, who at age 15 just wanted to get a prescription for birth control from a inconspicuous location so that her father wouldn’t find out, with the aid of her aunt, Bex. Also in the hostage situation lies a woman who is pro-life, a woman who is pro-choice, and the doctor who performs the abortion surgeries. In a semi-parallel story, there is the beginning stages of a lawsuit against a young woman who had a home-abortion past the legal time restriction. Each character is in a phase of reflection as to how they ended up where they are, and because of the hostile situation, what they might become.
Throughout the novel, Picoult supplies the reader with multiple views as well as statistics and facts about abortion, women’s health, and the violence that has occurred due to the tension in opposition on the issue. She also gives the reader a genuine understanding of what it’s like to be a woman today, faced with the difficulty of making decisions and receiving the ramifications of those decisions for what we do with our bodies. I think Picoult, as always, discusses this hot topic in a graceful manner, allowing all sides of the conversation to take place between her characters and allowing her readers to quietly observe (although, if they’re like me, they’re squirming in anticipation of what will happen to these characters.) I also will say that there is indeed trademark Picoult plot twists- one of which I saw coming, one of which I did not, like a one two punch. I also love how she ties all the characters together this way.
I highly recommend A Spark of Light. I think the plot is spot on for the current political atmosphere, and think that not only should women read it, but men as well. It’s a quick read, though heavy in terms of content, and an excellent opportunity for discussion.
As I said, I’ve read all of Picoult’s novels, but I haven’t reviewed them all on The Lexington Bookie. It’s almost impossible to pick a favorite, but Second Glance and Leaving Time are always the first I recommend. Picoult has something for everyone, so if you want a personalized suggestion, just ask in the comments and I’ll gladly recommend one of her books for you.
Also, Picoult just announced on 1/28/2020 that she will be releasing her new novel, The Book of Two Ways, on September 22, 2020!