(Jump over to read a review of Change Of Heart, Nineteen Minutes, Vanishing Acts)
(Jump down to read a review of Second Glance)
(Jump to a review of Perfect Match)
"My Sister's Keeper"
(Reviewed by Jenny Dressel MAY 15, 2004)
“…I was born for a very specific purpose. I wasn’t the result of a cheap bottle of wine or a full moon or the heat of the moment. I was born because a scientist managed to hook up my mother’s eggs and my father’s sperm to create a specific combination of precious material… they chose little embryonic me, specifically, because I could save my sister, Kate…”
Anna Fitzgerald, the thirteen year old narrator of the above passage, and the protagonist of Jodi Picoult’s new novel, My Sister’s Keeper, was conceived for one reason. Her older sister, Kate, was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) at age two. APL is an especially rare and deadly form of cancer. But due to the advances of medical science, Sara and Brian Fitzgerald, Kate’s parents, had the opportunity to have a baby who was an exact donor match to Kate. Hence, Anna comes into the world.
As we meet the Fitzgerald’s for the first time, Kate is sixteen, Anna is thirteen and their older brother, Jesse, is eighteen. Anna has been helping Kate stay alive since she was born- first by donating cord blood, then lymphocytes three times, then bone marrow, and blood stem cells. At this stage of her illness, Kate’s only hope is for her sister to donate a kidney. Anna is tired of giving parts of herself to keep Kate alive. She has spent as much time in the hospital as Kate has, and she wants to live her OWN life. So, Anna, a very grown-up thirteen-year-old, retains the services of a highly driven attorney, Campbell Alexander, to get medical emancipation from her parents.
Jodi Picoult has an amazing ability to take touchy ethical questions and make them extremely human. When I first picked up My Sister’s Keeper and read the inside flap, I got pretty indignant, thinking, “Well, of course, Anna has the right to her own body; what parent would have a child for the single reason of keeping another child alive?”
But this novel is told from the viewpoint of the ALL the characters, and reading Anna’s mother, Sara’s, flashbacks of the time that Kate was first diagnosed with APL, I found myself thinking, “Well, what WOULDN’T you do to save your two-year-old from an aggressive form of cancer?” If a doctor told me the cure was on the far side of the moon, I’d be petitioning NASA to get me to space. Carrying a healthy baby to term would be a piece of cake.
That’s the thing about Jodi Picoult. She can present both sides of a human dilemma with such honesty and compassion that your beliefs may change. She allows you to look at all aspects of the issue, seeing human beings who may not be perfect, but have the best intentions at heart. The world is not black and white, but many, many shades of grey.
Years ago, I read Picoult’s Keeping Faith, and it was apparent she was a wonderful artist. I found myself sobbing at the end of the book, because her characters are so rich and well drawn that in the space of a couple hundred pages, I feel like these people are members of my own family. I thought my reaction may be a fluke, so I picked up her novel, Harvesting the Heart, and found myself a puddle again.
By page 138 of My Sister’s Keeper, I was once again feeling my throat close up and tears springing to my eyes. Picoult’s prose cuts to the bone with its honesty, and her metaphors are simply amazing. For example,
“My parents tried to make things normal, but that’s a relative term…Normal in our house, is like a blanket too short for a bed—sometimes it covers you just fine, and other times it leaves you cold and shaking; and worst of all, you never know which of the two it’s going to be.”
You know this is NOT a “happily ever after” book, but it is honest, so you know it can’t be. Since I seem to be a bit of a coward, I saved the last twenty pages for quiet time in my household, so that my family would not see me with my nose running and swollen crying eyes. Picoult didn’t let me down, but I’m so glad I read the book. I think that it’s important to read sad books as frequently as it is to read happy ones. It keeps me balanced and also helps me to be grateful for everything I do have. This book makes me intensely grateful that I have two healthy children.
I have a friend who, for some reason, feels the need to read the ending of a book before she starts. I don’t understand that, but if you’re like this, I urge you to let this one flow as the author wanted it too- otherwise I promise, you will ruin it for yourself.
This book is perfect for everyone, although I would caution those who have family members with ill children to be careful. As I said, Picoult’s writing is extremely honest and it cuts to the bone, and it could be too overwhelming for those who are dealing with tragedy currently in their life. Saying that, both my parents died of cancer within the past ten years—I remember the hospital wards, and the battles with insurance companies- this author is right on.
To be fair, I have to mention there are other emotions this book evokes. It isn’t just sadness. At times, I found myself giggling as well. Kate and Anna bicker just like all sisters do; and the attorney, Campbell Alexander has a secret about him. He has a seeing eye dog, although he isn’t blind. The reason he gives for the dog, named Judge, are diverse and hilarious.
“Here’s the Braille menu.”
“I want a double espresso and two croissants, and I’m not blind.”
“Then what’s Fido for?”
“I have SARS,” I say. “He’s tallying up the people I infect.”
Okay, maybe that’s not as funny out of context, but believe me- as you’re reading the novel, you’ll find it extremely witty. The true reason he has a service dog is a mystery until Campbell is in court, and he blows his cover big time.
And then there’s the obligatory love story- this time between Campbell and the guardian ad litem assigned to Anna’s case, Julia. Campbell and Julia were high school lovers fifteen years ago; Campbell just disappeared from Julia’s life, and Julia has never fully recovered from that.
There are numerous little subplots going on throughout this novel which make it so much meatier than your average novel. I guarantee that this book would give any book group at least two hours of really good conversation. You could peel the layers back like an onion, as they say.
In Picoult’s biography on the book jacket, it states that she won the 2003 New England Book Award for her entire body of work. Considering I have only read three of her books, I feel like I’ve won the lottery because there are seven other novels out there waiting for me to savor. And she’s still writing- how great is that?
If you haven’t experienced Jodi Picoult yet, now is the time. And if you have, I think you will be mighty pleased with her newest creation.
- Amazon readers rating: from 1418 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from My Sister's Keeper at MostlyFiction.com(back to top)
(Reviewed by Judi Clark APR 20, 2003)
"What he thought was that trying to explain rose petals falling from the sky was not only useless, but also futile, since the things that were going to happen had already been set in motion. What he thought was that rose petals were going to be the least of their problems. Az focused the binoculars on a bulldozer chugging slowly up the road. "I think you can't dig in the ground, " he said aloud," without unearthing something."
Jodi Picoult says in her acknowledgments that, "believing in ghosts is a bit like being pregnant--- you either are, or you aren't, and there's no in between." I lived in a haunted house during my sophomore year of college, so I definitely fall in the believer category. So, no surprise that I might like this new novel. But this novel is so much more than a ghost story. I simply love the whole premise and structure. It is a friendly ghost story, but it is also a love story, well multiple love stories, and a murder mystery, well sort of a murder mystery. Others might call it paranormal fiction or even historical. I chose to place the book under plain old contemporary fiction because it is all of these things, but far meatier than any one category. One thing it does is draw parallels between the 1930s eugenics campaign that took place in 35 states, with the most extreme occurring in Vermont, and today's ability to screen embryos for genetic defects. Good stuff to discuss. And finally, the characters in this novel are just fascinating in their uniqueness and how each of their traits or history bounces off and/or reflects another's. Everything in this novel requires a second glance.
Ross Wakemen is convinced he can't die. Actually, he did once, but not for long. Since then, any attempts on his part are futile though it is the one thing he wants. Aimee, the love of his life, died in a car accident about ten years earlier, an accident in which Ross missed her passing because he was helping a passenger in another car. Ross' life is basically a ghost of a presence; he doesn't felt real, he just wants to get to the other side. For the last nine months Ross has been working with a husband and wife ghost hunting team, taking the job is just another attempt to find a way to reconnect with Aimee. On the team's latest gig, Ross discovers that the Warburton's aren't above performing a hoax for the sake of money. Disillusioned, Ross walks out on them. After all, he's not seen a ghost in all this time. After one more impromptu but useless suicide attempt, Ross shows up at his older sister's house in Comtosook, Vermont.
Comtosook is having its own interesting occurrences. For one thing, it has started to snow rose petals in August. Az Thompson knows it is related to the developer Red Hook Group coming into town to turn the plot of land with the big white house where Cissy Beaumont Pike lived, into a strip mall. Az contends this is one of their burial sites and knows that rose petals are the least of what is to come. Az is another character who seems unable to die; at 102 or 103 he's the oldest Abenaki Indian in the area and if they were an official tribe, he'd be the tribal elder. Az works as the night watchman at Angel Quarry, which he's done for the last thirty years.
Ross's sister, Shelby, and his nephew, Ethan, live an unusual life. Ethan is nine years old and was born with a rare genetic condition called XP, or xeroderma pigmentosum, which is basically an allergy to UV rays in sunlight and other types of light. Exposure causes skin blisters and lesions and since the DNA is unable to repair itself, those afflicted die of cancer at an early age. Though she can never undo the exposure Ethan received in the first year of his life, once diagnosed, Shelby changed her entire life in order to protect her son and give him every chance to live as long a life as possible, including raising him as a single mom when her husband refused to believe the diagnosis and thus was unwilling to change his lifestyle. Basically Shelby has arranged for Ethan's "day" to happen at night. Outside of being a milk-white skinned boy (he looks like a ghost), who has never seen the sun rise, Ethan is a normal boy whose main hobby is skate boarding - at night. This part of the plot serves a few purposes, such as adding fuel to the genetic manipulation argument as wells as showing how far a mother's love will go - both important to the overall plot. Picoult is great at adding small details that almost go unnoticed yet add a nice touch, such as the night blooming flowers in Shelby's backyard. A mother's love is boundless (a theme also expressed in Perfect Match).
Rod Van Fleet is the one responsible for securing and developing the Pike property for the Redhook Group. He visits the nursing home to get Spencer Pike's signature on the contract, but soon finds that the piece of paper doesn't carry as much weight as the crazy events happening in this town and the rumors. Not only do the rose petals fall regularly, but it rains red as blood and dries into a layer of fine red dust, the ground that Red Hook is supposed to be digging has froze over solid and there's a number of other strange occurrences that the townspeople seem to put up with without much thought until someone whispers the word "ghost." Once the cause is identified all the townspeople accept that that is what it is. Not good for Van Fleet. Through an interaction with Shelby, he ends up asking Ross to investigate the property to prove there is no ghost. As this is night work, Ross takes his nephew along as an assistant, a perfect thing for Ethan to do.
As much as Ross is resigned to the fact that he can't die, he's also frustrated that in all the time that he's worked with the Warburton's, he's never seen a ghost materialize, though he's gathered plenty of circumstantial evidence of their existence. And as much as Ross wants to see a ghost, when he does he's not at all prepared for the experience; as he discovers the experience after the fact. He has the unfortunate luck of not only being in love with one dead woman, but now two. But before all this happens, Ross already suspects that a murder may have taken place back in 1932 and pays a visit to the local police department.
Eli Rochert is one of two full time police officers in Comtosook and he's the one on duty when Ross goes to report the murder. Ross's logic is that with the land dispute going on, Eli should look into the death of Pike's wife. Sure enough, the Comtosook Police Department does have records for an unsolved case and Eli is curious if today's forensics methods might help close the case. Eli, himself is part Abenaki; like others in the town, he's learned to hide that part of his heritage in shame and is obviously defensive about it.
Throughout the novel, we also follow another single mother, Meredith Oliver, mother to eight-year-old Lucy, who is a ghost magnet. She sees them when she's trying to go to sleep and even in broad daylight. Naturally her mother and doctor do not understand what is happening to her and certainly do not guess that she's seeing ghosts. Meredith is a doctor herself, whose specialty is what she calls the "last resort" for couples that want to have healthy children but know there is a history of genetic diseases in their DNA. She screens the embryos ensuring only the defect-free ones are implanted in the mother's womb. Meredith's grandmother, Ruby, has been living with her ever since her mother died of a sudden death before Lucy was born. And here is another mystery, since we know that Ruby (the grandmother) knows that it was what she said to her daughter that brought on the fatal heart attack, we must wait until things unfold to find just what was said. Naturally it folds back into the story just perfectly.
This novel is structured in three parts; the first and third sections are set in 2001. Part Two is set in 1932 and narrated by the pregnant Cecilia Pike, Spencer's wife, in which she tells us events that happened that summer right before she is found hanging. So we still don't know if it is murder or suicide, but we do know the very interesting circumstance of her life; her father's and husband's role in the Eugenics program; and her encounters with an Abenaki called Gray Wolf. We also know that her mother died during childbirth (her birth) and that Cissy is convinced the same will happen to her. Throughout this section, there are quotes from the Eugenics publications from that time and one harrowing view of the Vermont State Hospital for the Insane. "Suddenly the door of the institution opens. We are sucked inside, because hell is a vacuum. Nurses wearing white hats creased like Japanese paper cranes move silently, seemingly unaware of the patient sobbing at the administration desk, or the one who dashes naked across a corridor, her wet hair streaming out behind her " Cissy Pike knows that if she were not Harry Beaumont's daughter and Spencer Pike's wife, this is a place she'd be - she has already attempted suicide twice.
Surely there are a lot of characters in this book and at the beginning it is a little abrupt as Picoult switches from one to another. But she does so with such poetic skill that it is easy to hang in there. For example, when she first introduces Shelby, the paragraph begins with, "Shelby Wakeman had awakened exhausted after a full day's sleep." Or even the opening line of the whole book, "Ross Wakeman succeeded the first time he killed himself, but not the second or third." Or, "Az Thompson awoke with his mouth full of stones, small and smooth as olive pits. He spat fifteen into the corrugated leather of his palm before he trusted himself to breathe without choking." Perhaps because she introduces the characters with such strong images, we don't lose track of who is who and each becomes more endearing in his or her own way.
By the end of this novel, we know that as much as this is a ghost story this is also about an awful crime committed by the Eugenics proponents of the mid-1920s to mid-1930s. This is a bleak time in US history and as Picoult points out in her author's notes, even Nazi scientists cited the sterilization laws as the foundation for their own plans. I admit that I was not shocked by Picoult's revelations about the eugenics program, because I found one such book while cleaning up my grandparents place after my grandfather died. That book was the most disturbing and shocking thing that I found in their house. My hands were literally shaking while reading the contents of this not so thin book and as conditioned by my time, it made me nauseous. But at the same time it opened my eyes to the way people once thought of eugenics, before their innocence was exploited by Hitler. What Jodi Picoult does in her novel is take an example of today's genetic manipulation something that feels like it is a morally correct usage and holds it up side by side with the earlier eugenics program, which later proved its own horror. As I said, everything in this novel requires a second glance. Even the motivation behind suicide or the reason for a ghost's haunting.
So I don't how the nonbelievers of ghosts and the supernatural will enjoy this novel, but I suspect that most will suspend their disbelief long enough to have fun reading it. I have read Jodi Picoult's last four novels and each is impressive. I can't tell you which is my favorite or which is the best, for each just clicks with me. But right now I am leaning towards labeling this one the best.
- Amazon readers rating: from 145 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Second Glance at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Songs of the Humpback Whale (1992)
- Harvesting the Heart (1993)
- Picture Perfect (1995)
- Mercy (1996)
- The Pact (1998)
- Keeping Faith (1999)
- Plain Truth (2000)
- Salem Falls (2001)
- Perfect Match (2002)
- Second Glance (2003)
- My Sister's Keeper (2004)
- Vanishing Acts (2005)
- The Tenth Circle (2006)
- Nineteen Minutes (2007)
- Change of Heart (2008)
- Handle with Care ( 2009)
- House Rules (2010)
- Sing You Home (2011)
- Lone Wolf (2012)
- The Storyteller (February 2013)
With Samantha Van Leer:
- Between the Lines (2012)
- Wonder Woman: Love and Murder (November 2007)
Movies from books:
- My Sister's Keeper (2009)
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- The official Website for Jodi Picoult
- MostlyFiction.com's reviews of Plain Truth, Salem Falls, Perfect Match
- MostlyFiction.com's reviews of Change of Heart, Nineteen Minutes and Vanishing Acts
- The American Eugenics Society Scrapbook
- BookReporter.com review of Second Glance
- ReviewOfBooks.com collection of reviews for My Sister's Keeper
- MostlyFiction.com's review of House Rules
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About the Author:
Jodi Picoult grew up in Nesconset, New York. She received an A.B. in creative writing from Princeton and a master's degree in education from Harvard. Jodi received the 2003 New England Book Award for her entire body of work. She has also been a frequent contributor to Family Fun Magazine. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and three children.