A few years ago, (around 2004) I was wandering around Tesco Metro when I spotted the tiny corner of books. There was a book that caught my eye called Salem Falls, about a small town rocked by a series of revelations about a number of the inhabitants. Something about it seemed different to the tons of pastel covered chick lit or the masculine focussed lawyer-like stories. This was the first Jodi Picoult book I read, and it certainly wasn’t the last. It has been described as an updated version of the Arthur Miller play The Crucible, as many of the story elements are similar.
After I’d read it cover to cover in the next couple of evenings, I looked for more of Picoult’s work. The library had a couple, which I devoured similarly quickly. I read everything I could of hers, although at that time her back catalogue wasn’t widely available.
There are a couple of reasons I enjoy reading Picoult novels. She has a few motifs which she tends to stick to, but rather than seeming repetitive, they manage to knit her body of work together into a familiar whole.
Every book has believable characters in. She is one of the few writers who can make me laugh out loud, which means I then have to explain the joke to whoever’s nearest. Unfortunately for him, that’s usually Mr Charming. The characters are men, women, young, old – but they all have something in common – a human quality which makes the reader laugh and cry along with them. The Pact tells the story of an apparent suicide pact between two teenagers who’d known each other since birth. The catch is that Chris did not die, but Emily did. The emotions that the families go through are painted in vivid strokes by Picoult, and I can empathise with them all despite never having been in that position.
This moral dilemma is another motif of Picoult’s – a ‘what would you do’ situation that leaves you scratching your head for days. In Handle With Care, the book I’m reading at the moment, the parents of a girl born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI) are trying to decide whether or not to sue for wrongful birth. A successful verdict of a wrongful birth trial would result in a hefty settlement sum – big enough for the child to be provided for in all her needs. However, it means having to stand in court as her parents and tell the world that you wish you’d had the choice to abort her, and if you had, you would. The best books stay with you for months, perhaps years afterwards, and all of her books do this for me.
Another mainstay is the trial – not surprising really, as most of her books feature some sort of moral dilemma. In one of my favourite of her novels, My Sister’s Keeper, the lawyer features heavily as another part of the narrative. I don’t think I’ll see the film, as I heard that his part, along with a few others, were jettisoned or severely compromised in favour of pacing. I’d rather see the film in my head, to be honest. In a recent read, Picture Perfect, there was no trial but there was a moral dilemma – can a woman leave her otherwise loving husband because he beat her? How much more complicated does it make it when he just happens to be the most famous actor in the world, and you’re pregnant with his child? I think if she’d written this later, rather than as one of her first novels, there would have been a trial. There was still a police presence, but not the build up the rest of the novels have.
Added to everything else, there is always a pleasing resolution to the stories. Sometimes there are situations which are hinted at, rather than laid out starkly. In other instances, characters pop up in other novels unobtrusively, so you’d only recognise them if you’d read the other books. This gives them a re-read factor, and a sense of a universe, that leads to a loyal readership.
I tend to glibly describe Jodi Picoult as a female John Grisham. In a sense, that is true. She writes more sympathetically about stories that centre around moral dilemmas and climax in a trial. However, I think I do her a disservice because her books are so much more engrossing than John Grisham’s, for me, at least.
Following the success of the film adaptation of My Sister’s Keeper in 2009, I have a feeling that we’ll be seeing more Picoult novels on the big screen. I only hope that they do a better job with the story than they did with the aforementioned, or at the very least, when away and read the book.
What about you? What’s your favourite Jodi Picoult book? Or your favourite author?