Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Book Club Again

I didn't make it on here after last week's Book Club -- I was busy with Easter preparations. So I'm writing about it a bit belatedly.

I was looking forward to this one, since it featured a writer whose books I enjoy. I've read My Sister's Keeper and The Pact by Jodi Picoult. I've noticed that if you read enough works by any writer in a short period of time, they start to seem formulaic. You notice the connections between them: how Richard Russo's main male character always has a screwed up relationship with his dad, or how Barbara Kingsolver likes to put a scientist or failed scientist, etc. With Plain Truth, I've spotted Picoult's formula. Her books are about a legal melodrama and the lives of everyone it touches. In My Sister's Keeper, a girl who was conceived to be a bone marrow donor for her older sister (a victim of childhood cancer) seeks emancipation from her parents when asked to donate a kidney. In The Pact, a teenaged boy stands accused of killing his girlfriend and best friend since infancy.

In addition to the emotional power of Plain Truth, there's the added attraction of a glimpse inside a world not frequently treated in popular culture, that of the Amish. The legal melodrama in this book centers around Katie, a young Amish girl who gave birth out of wedlock in her parents' barn. The baby was found dead in the barn. Katie denied not only killing the baby, but even being pregnant or having sex at all. Ellie, a driven attorney and lost human being, is persuaded to take the case by her aunt-by-marriage who left the Amish faith, and who is Katie's aunt. At Katie's hearing, the judge releases her on her own recognizance, on the condition that someone accept responsibility for her. Katie's Amish family is not allowed to do so, so Ellie speaks up.

It's a measure of Picoult's skill as a writer that this moment didn't sink the entire book. It's a plot more worthy of a bad sitcom than of a book by a popular writer, but you do come to care for Ellie and enjoy seeing the Amish world through her eyes. The Amish are easy to romanticize, but Picoult doesn't hesitate to depict some of the more unpleasant aspects of Amish life: the subordinate role of women to men, and the requirement that individuals subordinate their own will to that of the church, for example. Picoult makes few judgements on the beliefs of the Amish and lets the reader decide for themselves.

She handles Ellie's personal life less deftly. Ellie has run away from a long-term relationship with a fellow laywer. At issue is -- you guessed it -- Ellie's desire to have a child. During the course of the novel, Ellie rekindles a relationship with an ex-boyfriend. Then, she threw up the morning of the trial. On TV (and apparently in some books), there is only one reason a woman ever throws up. Yes, indeed. Picoult made Ellie learn of her pregnancy in the midst of defending someone for murdering her newborn!

Despite maudlin plot devices, the book is very engrossing and enjoyable. Picoult populates it with enough interesting people to keep you busy: the devoted Samuel (Katie's Amish boyfriend), Katie's brother Jacob, torn between his intellectual curiousity and his family, Katie's unyielding father Aaron, her stoic mother Sarah, who has suffered several stillbirths, the death of her youngest daughter, and the loss of her son through shunning. The book has a surprise ending, as well. There was much debate at the book club over what actually happened, and how Katie's baby actually died. I won't say more in case any of you want to read it.

There are plenty of criticisms you could level against Picoult's books. They often tend towards the sappy and melodramatic. The ones I've read have that "ripped from the headlines" feel of Law and Order (in fact, Lifetime cast Mariska Haritgay of Law and Order SVU to play Ellie in the movie version). But you could also do a lot worse. They are entertaining and uplifting and will take you away from yourself. I will probably continue to read her from time to time.

1 comment:

Brent Fitzpatrick said...

I have not read any of Jodi Picoult's work yet but have heard a lot about My Sister's Keeper. I will likely be purchasing it today. :-) I have also heard a lot about her new book Nineteen Minutes. Have you read it yet? I would be interested in what you thought.

I can see that you are already in a book club but if you are out surfing the web come by and check out our site. My wife and I just started a Literary Community called CurlingUp.com and would love your feedback on it.

Thanks for the great post.