On the heels of Lolita, I read another excellent Jodi Picoult book, Salem Falls. The book is meant to be a version of The Crucible for modern times. I've never read The Crucible, so I can't really give an opinion on her success or failure, but the book was good.
This is the fourth book of hers that I've read, and I think one of her real strengths as a writer is her characters. Since her books are typically legal dramas, it would be easy to set up "good" characters and "bad" characters, but hers are always real, conflicted people with elements of both.
Salem Falls is the tale of Jack St. Bride, ex-private school teacher, ex-prisoner and current dishwasher. Jack was the victim of some unfortunate circumstances: he helped a student get some birth control pills. She developed a crush on him, and wrote a diary of the relationship she imagined them having. Her father found it, along with the pills, and the dominoes all fell from there. Jack is now adrift, with no home or job to go back to. He lands in the small Massachusetts town of Salem Falls, gets a job as a dishwasher, falls in love with the diner owner (Addie) and tries to put his past behind him. Megan's Law makes that rather difficult, though, and thanks to his instant notoriety, he finds himself once again wrongly accused.
His accusers are a quartet of teenage practicioners of Wicca. It's clear from the moment you're introduced to the girls, however, that the chief accuser, Gillian Duncan, is really the one driving everything for the girls. Her father is the richest man in town, and the others trail contentedly in her wake, whether it takes them to the occult, or to phony accusations of rape.
I think the book would've been better if Picoult had explored the bond between the four girls more. They were the most interesting characters in the book to me. I've always found the concept of unquestioning allegiance interesting, maybe because it's so opposite to my own nature. The slowest parts of the book involved the attorneys on both sides of the case. The book would not have suffered at all from their omission. The other characters are vivid and interesting, though: Addie, once a victim of rape, diner operator and mother to a dead child; her father, Roy, who transforms from the town drunk to his former self during the course of the book; police chief Charlie Saxton, whose daughter is one of Gillian's quartet and who has to come face to face with his own past and the truth about his daughter in the course of his investigation.
They have been discussing the idea of building a "civil confinement" facility in my state for sex offenders who are deemed extremely likely to offend again. The whole project gives me the creeps, and I wonder why sex offenders, in particular, seem to loom so large in our minds. In the 80s, everyone was afraid of Satanists. 20 years later, it seems to be sex offenders that we all fear. I've often wondered why, and I don't have a good answer, except that maybe they embody the concept of "lost innocence" that we as a society seem to be concerned about. The feeling is that kids are mature earlier than ever, even biologically speaking, no one hides their porn-viewing or strip-club visiting, you can use all kinds of swear words on prime-time TV and 2/3 of all movies released are rated R. Juvenile sex offenders, perhaps, are the loss of innocence come to life, and while parents are basically powerless against the internet and swear words on TV (or FEEL powerless against these things), they feel they can do something about sex offenders in the community. But I'm interested in hearing anyone else's theories.
Later in the week, we'll be exploring sex between a minor and an adult from another angle in Zoe Heller's What Was She Thinking? or Notes on a Scandal. Or perhaps another angle will present itself, but I'm sure the sex will creep in there. Stay tuned.