Why I let Jodi Picoult destroy my life again and again
Jodi Picoult is one of those people that churns out story after story so prolifically, that I would hate her if I didn’t crave her books so much. She can turn the simplest of tales into a complex web of intertwining perspectives, and you never have any idea what’s going on until the last three pages when she proceeds to punch you in the face.
When I was younger and much more foolish, I made a grand proclamation that I did not read Jodi Picoult because I didn’t like sad cancer books. Yikes. Forgive me, I knew nothing. When you think Jodi Picoult what do you think? Lifetime movies? Cameron Diaz? Or perhaps, like the old me, sadness and cancer? Well, step bacl, and enter into a world where someone can break your heart in seven different ways but you keep crawling back for more.
First, Jodi (I call her this because I feel we are close enough for a first name friendship) tells wildly different tales all under the same format. In each of her novels, she splits the story into different perspectives, and each chapter is a different person. Sometimes, their relationship to one another is clear, others it isn’t. Inevitably, the characters converge, but it’s a slow and painful burn. It’s as though you are on a beach, wading into a lake. You see something glowing deep in the bottom of the lake and your mind fills with curiosity. With each chapter, you submerge yourself inch by inch, not really knowing what is making you do so. It seems pretty straightforward in the beginning. If you swim to the bottom of a lake, you will drown. But that’s not how Jodi operates.
Handle with Care is always the first book that comes to mind when I think of the heartbreak that Jodi has put me through so far. The entire book centers around this family and a sick girl. The sick girl has a terrible bone disease that causes her bones to break with incredible ease thus making her need much more care and attention than her older sister. Medical bills pile up, the older sister feels constantly pushed aside and spirals out of control, and the entire family feels strain. Then, a possible solution. If the mother sues her doctor for “wrongful birth,” then she will get millions of dollars and solve all of their problems.
However, many more problems arise with this. First, the doctor is the mother’s best friend, so obviously their friendship is torn apart. Second, the father is crazy upset about this because this suit means his wife has to get up in a court and look their sick daughter in the face and say that she would have aborted her if she had known about the disease. Marriage over. Third, the other daughter feels even more neglected, and her entire family is torn apart. This goes on for pages and pagesand then what happens? They win the lawsuit. Mother has money, daughter can get the care she needs, but no other daughter, no best friend, no husband. Sucks right? Just wait. The last page of the book, the daughter with the disease goes out onto a frozen pond where the ice cracks beneath her and she drowns. In her perspective, she thinks “at least it wasn’t me who broke this time.” Then, her mother puts the eight million dollar check in her coffin. I am not being superfluous here, I threw the book across my bedroom.
So, perhaps that one was just sad right? Maybe her more mysterious books will hold better endings right? No. Think again. There is the brutal realization that she killed the wrong man in The Storyteller or the earth shattering moment when you find out that they were all dead all along in Leaving Time. There is the “oh” moment when you find out who really shot him in Nineteen Minutes, and the “wait, does this mean” moment when you find out what really happened in Salem Falls. So why do I do it? Why do I let her break my heart again and again? Because, she mends it first, possibly making it bigger than before? Because, I envy her craft of storytelling? Or because my curiosity rules my every move? Yes. Yes to all of the above.
There is something in the tragic beauty of Jodi’s storytelling. The amount of time and detail that goes into each new perspective is astonishing, not to mention that she tells the stories of people you never knew existed like the researchers who save elephants from circuses, or men who hunt down the hidden Nazis, or real live psychics with actual credentials, or ghost hunters. Or there are the stories about ordinary people thrown into extraordinary circumstances like high school teenagers, stay at home moms, and brothers and sisters. She leads you into it, slowly and methodically. She makes sure that you have all of the pieces of the puzzle before she places in the defining piece. The end may crush you, but along the way you find small breaths of life that you never knew you needed. She is able to fit huge feelings into small, simple sentences that manage to keep you anchored and make you weightless at the same time. She defines even the undefinable. “Just because you didn’t put a name to something, did not mean it wasn’t there.”
On top of these definitions, she gives answers. No matter how tragic or blunt, she answers all of our questions. Sometimes, she provides an answer to a question that I didn’t know I had, like getting over grief. ““I think grief is like a really ugly couch. It never goes away. You can decorate around it; you can slap a doily on top of it; you can push it to the corner of the room—but eventually, you learn to live with it.” Or what good does forgiveness do? “Forgiving isn’t something you do for someone else. It’s something you do for yourself. It’s saying, ‘You’re not important enough to have a stranglehold on me.’ It’s saying, ‘You don’t get to trap me in the past. I am worthy of a future.” But on top of these tiny bombs she leaves in the middle of her stories, she makes sure that everything is resolved, even if its tragic or disappointing. She may never give us a happy ending, but she gives us a real, tangible ending. So why does this mean so much? Why do I let her destroy my world again, and again? She actually answered this for me.
“That’s why we read fiction, isn’t it? To remind us that whatever we suffer, we’re not the only ones?”