Tuesday, March 02, 2010


I don’t often write about books but for once I thought I would.

The great thing about doing a degree in English at university was that it gave me permission to read - because it was “work”. Before that, reading a book instead of doing my homework was laziness. Now it became study.

This happy state of affairs ended when I graduated in 1972. Though it’s often been true since then that I have to read a novel because I'm teaching it, this is never quite as enjoyable. I’m distracted, as I read, by considerations about whether the class will like it/find it too easy/find it too hard/find rude things in it/ find anything that could possibly be construed as racist/fattist/anti-disabled/anti-smokers or any other anti- that could upset anyone.

Other than out of duty, however, I don’t sit around at home reading during term-time all that much, simply because there’s usually something less pleasant that I feel I ought to be doing instead. I do read in bed and in the bath. And I don’t read much fiction – not because I don’t like novels (I like some novels a lot) but because I certainly don’t like all novels and I really enjoy reading diaries and letters and biographies. And blogs.

I’ve now finished “My Sister’s Keeper” and am trying to analyse my feelings about it. In case you don’t know, the main character is a thirteen-year-old girl who was conceived specifically so that she could donate her cord blood to her sister, who has leukaemia. Later, the well sister donates other body products such as bone marrow and at the start of the book, her parents want her to give her sister a kidney. She goes to a lawyer to ask that she, not her parents, should have the right to decide whether she give any further parts of her body. This is the main crisis of the novel.

Of course it’s fiction and of course fiction has to have a plot, a problem, conflict, a dénouement. And of course a plot is artificial, and one wants a structure, with the writer’s hand guiding the plot to a satisfactory – not necessarily a happy – outcome. And this novel has most of these things. But it also seemed to me rather unpleasant: it milks the situation, fluently squeezing agony out of all the characters.

Jodi Picoult uses the device of multiple point of view, so that the girl, her sister, her delinquent brother, both parents, the lawyer, the lawyer’s girlfriend, the lawyer’s girlfriend’s identical twin (why?) each narrate a few chapters. Good heavens - the lawyer, who is epileptic, has a dog (called, with heavy thematic symbolism, Judge) to warn him of oncoming fits. I half-expected this furry character to get a chunk of narrative: (“Why does no one consider my point of view, dragged into court every day? Where are my rights? Woof. Grr.”)

It’s a jolly tricky thing to do, multiple voices, and I’m not saying that I could do it any better. But that’s not really the point. You wouldn’t notice that the narrator changed if you didn’t read the chapter headings. The thirteen-year-old girl writes like a forty-year-old, as does the drug-addicted delinquent brother, who goes around fire-raising because the really nice parents somehow don’t pay him any attention (and the father is a fireman so that makes it really ironic). The ill sister’s voice is identical to the donor-sister’s – in fact they’re all articulate and insightful and very reasonable but all much the same.

And really, does Jodi P have to make all these terrible things happen to one family? Especially what happens at the end? Come on, now. Gah. Yes, she's trying to grasp her readers by the emotions, but also I think it’s because there’s no easy answer to the problem. Should Anna give Kate her kidney? Kate looks like dying anyway; Anna is traumatised by the procedures already undergone and would have to give up her beloved ice hockey in case her remaining kidney got damaged in a game. But how can she let her sister die? It’s an insoluble problem so I suppose lots of distracting sub-plots are the novelist’s way of padding out her story.

I once had a lecturer who objected to EM Forster’s novels because of what he called their “crrrrrrude co-incidences”. This novel has its share too. The sort-of-guardian person appointed to help the girl just happens to be the lawyer’s ex-girlfriend. They both happen never to have found love again even after fifteen or so years, even though they’re both terribly attractive. The fireman father happens to be called out to all the fires started by the son. At the end, the father just happens to come across … well, I’ll not tell you in case you’re about to read the book, but unless he’s a member of the only fire crew, he might well not be called to this event and it’s rather unlikely – at best terrifically bad luck – that this event would happen in the first place.

And the rest of the book – the ever-after – is skimmed over far too fast. Apart from the one bad event, things are fine in the future. The bad brother becomes a police officer! This fits in well with the other unlikelihoods, such as that a thirteen-year-old would consult a lawyer to act for her against her parents; that the lawyer would take on a case for a thirteen-year-old with little cash; or that no one would know he had epilepsy even though he frequently has to plead in court cases. (He drives around, too. Not a good idea.) The parents never seem to have considered that the girl might like to be consulted about her kidneys. Surely they would?

Having said all that – Jodi Picoult sells lots of books and I did read it to the end, at least faintly gripped. Pressed. Nudged, maybe. It deals with a modern moral dilemma which might well cause such problems – if you forget about the subplots with the lawyer and the delinquent-but-with-heart-of-gold brother. But I can’t help feeling that that it would have been a much better novel if – say - Anne Tyler had written it.


  1. I have to admit I haven't read this novel, but I think your precis highlight all reasons I no longer read many modern novels. Even when the plot (for want of a better word) is well conceived the shoe-horning of all the characters into the situation - your lecturers crude coincidences - often brings them down. The use of many voices - all speaking with the same articulation is wide-spread and particularly irritating. We would these days decry every character speaking in 'made-up' cockney or mock scots but a lack of definitive characterisation is equally banal. Like you I am more and more resorting to biography, non-fiction, blogs and the classics. I applaud the current drive to get people reading by online and TV book clubs and the lists sometimes throw up an undiscovered gem, but I wonder if it removes some of the need for both reader and novelist to discriminate and encourages too many novels written to the same 'winning' formula. Sorry I'll get off the soap box now and get back to my knitting!

  2. I tried this book and gave up. I found the 'voices' unbelievable. I agree about Anne Tyler.....her characters delight and intrigue me.

  3. I have to say I really did not enjoy the book. At all. I read it at book club and it seemed to embody everything I loathe in subject matter, style and all the rest. I too, like you and Jane, tend to read more and more non-fiction these days.

  4. Excellent review - I think you may have summed up my feelings about this novel too. My colleagues went on and on about it, even organized a kind of 'field trip' to see the movie. I didn't care for the book. Too much hype, in my opinion, for a story so implausible. And there's something about Jodi Picoult's writing style that I just don't like, although I can't put my finger on it right now.
    I read quite a bit of fiction, along with other things, and I've become a book snob. An author who churns out a novel every year or so usually doesn't produce quality work.
    Yes, I agree, Anne Tyler would have done a better job of this story. Her style is much more honest.

  5. Bravo Ms. Life! My sentiments exactly. Ms. Picoult writes so many books and after this one, I've never been tempted to read the others. Or see the movie. It was an ok story, (with a surprising twist I'll admit) but that's about it!

  6. Yes to all your comments. What a wonderful summary and set of arguments, and your students are so lucky to have a teacher like you.
    I resolved, having seen the film and dipped into the book, never to read any of her books, for all such reasons. I think she wants to force the reader into agreements with things, motives, situations that are against the reader's convictions. And the idea of creating a person to use as organ fodder is quite revolting. Why does one child have independent value, to be saved at any costs, and the other person not?
    Although I enjoy fiction I find it increasingly difficult to find novels I want to read. A really horrid one, The Slap, has been very popular in Australia. I bought it and have berated myself ever since for wasting my money. I don't want anyone to read it. Waste of time, waste of space.
    I am reading Infidel at present, seething away at the absolutely appalling treatment of women.
    As for those cats, sitting cosily at your table, how hilarious they look. Meow.

  7. What Anna said. Though, to be fair [and "Sister's Keeper" is the only one of her legions of books I've read] I did read somewhere that she regretted signing the contract that forced her to churn out books at the rate she does, whether or not she feels inspired. Give me Anne Tyler too, any day of the week!

  8. I will happily join the Anne Tyler fan club!
    And continue to sort-of admire Jodi Picoult for being able to churn them out like lots of other (but more often male) writers. Perhaps there should be a separate classification for commercial fiction.

  9. As others have said, great precis.

    I get really ticked off with the manipulative quality of this sort of 'child in peril' fiction. And the unbelieeeeeeeeeeeeeeevable coincidences (Mark Twain once had a snipe at James Fenimore Cooper on the basis of overdone coincidence).

    Maybe you should take a happy dip into Georgette Heyer. The Grand Sophy never disappoints. Nor Venetia, or The Unknown Ajax, or The Toll Gate, or - well, not everything is great, but plenty is very good.

    If you want to try something newer that's rather fun, have you come across Temeraire (aka in the US as His Majesty's Dragon) by Naomi Novik? It's alternative history, the setup being the Napoleonic Wars, with the delicious addition of an aerial corps of dragons. The characterisations are good, the main character Will Laurence thinks and acts as he should for the period and so forth. A cleverly created and well-sustained world.

    One fairly recent novel I did really enjoy was The Time Traveler's Wife (book better than the film by far). Disappointed in her latest, though (Her Fearful Symmetry).

    Some modern novels do leave me cold. I had The Slap recommended by several people, but I've been avoiding it because I suspect I won't like it...

  10. What a fabulous review! Promise us when you retire you'll do lots more of these - or indeed before of possible but when you retire you'll have more time and leisure for it. I've never read this book or any others by her I recall but I certainly won't now. And you did make me laugh.

    I don't read so many novels now. I read more history and other non-fiction because I find there are so many things I want to learn about, and so many novels now just seem like killing time that could be better spent. I think I appreciate the ones I do read more though.

    I do remember once saying I was enjoying 'The Tenderness of Wolves' and you said 'oh no, people endlessly trudging through snow!' or something similar. I protested at the time but then something reminded me of it and I smiled because all I could remember of the book was people endlessly trudging through snow!

    I often don't know what I really think about a book until a time later when it's sunk in, or else I've almost completely forgotten about it so I know it wasn't up to much.

  11. Well, I did say after your last post that I wasn't planning to read this, and now I'm definitely not going to. I am reading Julian Fellowes at the moment because he makes me giggle at all his snide, knowing little asides.

  12. Feeling a bit embarrassed after admitting to reading more than one Jodi Piccoult novels, when she is obviously NOT the favoured author of the higher educated readers of this blog.
    I'll restrict my comments in future to the cats and the weather. Mr Life doesn't seem to mind the cats taking over his newspapers - sweet photo!

  13. 'My Sister's Keeper' is a popular one with the girls I teach at school. They're always going on about it.

  14. I used to read, read, read.... and suddenly one day I realized I couldn't stomach most of the authors I used to read anymore.

    Anne Rice? Nope. No more of her.
    Stephen King? Even he is wearing on me.
    Even my beloved Diana Gabaldon... I have been "reading" her most recent installment for the past four months, and am still only halfway through the book.

    Is it me? Or has my taste in books just suddenly taken a sharp turn without signalling?

    I don't know... but I am going to attempt to read some books suggested by some of my favorite bloggers. Throw a little spice in the mix, see if that helps.

    I think perhaps the stresses I've been going through lately have just made my brain unable to settle down to anything that's not entirely practical and necessary.

  15. My Sister's Keeper marked the end of my time reading Jodi P's novels! I enjoyed a couple before that but found them all quite samey and that one in particular annoyed me for the dragging out the agony aspect. So, I'm with you on pretty much most of what you say although I didn't notice the multiple narrator thing!!

    Lesley x