Change of Heart

Jodi Picoult, Change of Heart. Hodder & Stoughton, 2008. 461pgs

Not my usual fair. I admit it, I can be shallow. When I am choosing what to read I have to know something about the author or the book to get me past a bad cover. If I am just looking for new books, I won't even pick it up if it has a hoaky or girly cover. And look at that cover? I mean, come on :) If that wasn't bad enough, this is the description of the author on the back: "Jodi Picoult is the UK's number one bestselling women's fiction author." Women's Fiction? Clearly this is a marketing tool. Having now read the book, I don't think they would have trouble marketing it as just a book if they so choose... but they didn't. Picoult writes "women's fiction." Personally, I would be curious how one defines that exactly. Fiction written by a women? Fiction with female characters in it? Fiction with a book study guide at the back? Fiction with an element of romance in it? What?

Ok, rant aside, on to the book itself. I read this book at the recommendation of a friend, who also lent me the book (which is what I knew that got me past both the cover and the author's description). And I enjoyed it. Let me stress that again: I enjoyed it. Why am I stressing that? Because this book was literally a three-alarm fire. When I read a fiction book, I normally just read to enjoy. I am not trying to pick it apart, or critique it, I just want some good, relaxing fun. However, as I do that, there are certain things that set off alarms in my head, and when that happens it changes how I read the book. Suddenly, I am critical and focused, and ready to take it apart. Now, a book that sets off one alarm can be anywhere from poor to excellent; the alarm might be false, or it might not be that big of a deal, or I might be feeling gracious. Two alarms and your getting onto shaky ground. Three alarms... well, lets just say its a rare book that sets off three alarms and still finish, let alone enjoy. I start by emphasizing that because in order to review this book I need to go through those three alarms, and its going to sound pretty negative. Instead of giving you the wrong impression, I'm telling you the ending of the story first: I enjoyed the book. Oh, and this may be a long review (hope its worth it Keri; you might be the only one who reads this :)

Alarm #1 Plot Copying, or un-originality. Obviously, its not going to get published if its straight out plagiarism, but authors can be astonishingly lacking in creativity at times, and plot copying is a big sign. By page 100, I was wondering. I mean, mentally challenged individual involved in double homicide is sentenced to death row and while in prison begins to perform miracles (including healing people, small animals, and removing evil)? The Green Mile much? Now, let me hasten to add that I think this turned out to be a false alarm. While there is definite overlap, Picoult takes the premise in an entirely new direction. The tension is not located in anywhere near the same place in these two stories, and they develop extremely differently.

Alarm #2 "Pulling on my heart strings." There comes a time in some books when the reader has been made to feel a certain way one too many times. Every character is introduced by their flaws, their depression, their sadness, etc. Every character speaks with the same voice in the midst of a different tragedy. How many times do I need to hear that Maggie thinks she's fat and has a bad relationship with her mother? This alarm, while not completely valid, turned out to have more substance. Picoult's characters do tend to 'pull at your heart strings' more than is strictly necessary. However, Picoult redeems this fact by making sure that all of those strings end somewhere. That is, they end up being carried through to some kind of conclusion or resolution (good or bad). This is quite an accomplishment, and sets her squarely on the side of authors who do this well. She is touching the readers heart sincerely, and in a way that invites exploration. On the other hand, quite a few of her characters are little more than mouth pieces for ideas. Some are extremely believable (like Maggie), others (like Michael) I found very unrealistic. But, the key, in terms of this alarm, is that the tragic beginnings had a purpose other than to emotionally manipulate the reader (or as sleight of hand for some other lack). Instead, they fit into the story.

Alarm #3 "Let me tell you about early Christianity..." This is probably an alarm very specific to myself, but I can't help it. I spent 4 years in religious studies and then 3 in seminary, and its an area of interest for me. While I am no PhD, I do consider myself somewhat educated on this subject, and so whenever an author touches on it then it perks my interest, and it makes me cautious. Two concerns pop into my head immediately: one factual, one pastoral.

The first is that once a subject I understand well is introduced, I want to compare my own understanding to the authors, and both to the facts I know. So often, when reading popular fiction, I find that authors have chosen a popular book on the subject and based their entire premise/story/whatever on that one perspective (or even a couple of popular level perspectives). Its good enough for a novel, but its not good research, and it is usually very slanted.

The second part of my concern stems directly from this first. Many people, upon reading such novels, will feel that they have learned something, or been provided with the fruits of good research. How do I know this? I fall for it myself. I already mentioned it when I reviewed Crichton's book; I finished that book and felt I had learned something about Caribbean pirates. I know enough about research and such that I think, or like to think, that if I ever seriously needed to know something about pirates, I would do real research. More importantly, knowledge about pirates is not something that will likely ever change my life. When I come to this book however, that is no longer true, because this book is providing 'knowledge' about Christianity and the bible. Someone's knowledge of Christianity, and the New Testament, and its formation, etc. might very well change their life. I believe the bible can, and does, regularly change people who encounter it with even slightly open hearts and minds. Thus, there is even more reason to take this kind of writing very seriously. And more often than not, I find such authors, writing on such a subject, provide just enough information, and with just the right twists, to inoculate the reader with Christianity.

For this third alarm, I found Picoult did better than most, but still not well. She certainly isn't writing another Davinci Code. The position which is implicit, and sometimes explicit, in her book is, at least, a position that mostly aligns with what some serious scholars would support. Her presentation of alternative gospels is fairly accurate. However, her presentation of how they are, and were, evaluated, and, most especially, of gnosticism, leave a lot to be desired. Gnosticism, in her book, becomes a 2000 year old example of seeking individual expression, of taking responsibility for your own beliefs against the masses, of a universal type religion in a pluralistic world which is unable to stand up to the 'establishment'. It is pictured far to much as a predecessor of what we often see expressed in what is called 'post-modernism.' It's rather convenient, written to be attractive to her readers, and highly inaccurate. I also found most of her interactions with faith and religion to either be unrealistic or of just the sort of depth required to convince readers of any stripe that she is writing through their own eyes.

In the end, 1 alarm turned out to be accurate, and 1 pointed me to what I consider some minor flaws in her character writing (but compared to many writers, even here she stands above the crowd).

So, what did I enjoy about the book? Picoult is an excellent writer, and as much as I disagreed with parts of her book, it did get me thinking, which is always a plus. Its a good story, with above average characters, some good twists, and it does draw the reader in.

Would I recommend this book? Depends on to whom. Not unequivocally, but that hesitation stems from my own opinions on issues surrounding the church, Christianity, the New Testament, etc. It does not stem from any doubts about her skill as a writer. I realize that this is not the point of the book; its not a theology text, or a Sunday School manual. Nonetheless, a large portion of the plot and story revolve around the religious issues (as Bourne quotes from the Gospel of Thomas, and the priest struggles with his faith, and the reader wonders if Picoult is setting up Bourne as Jesus returned, and the testimony in the court centers on religion and gnosticism, etc.). Due to this, I think it is fair to judge Picoult on this issues, as well as on her writing.

Would I read another one of her books? Yes, but not right away (mostly because I now have a bunch of library books to read :).


kering said...

Yeah, I definitely agree that quite a few flags started waving as I was reading it.. but I really enjoyed it because it made me start thinking about this stuff and wanting to go research and know to what exactly she was referring to and what theological conversation has had to say concerning all this over the year. I'm glad you didn't detest it :P

Andrew said...

I was serious when I said I enjoyed it; it was pretty good.

And your response sounds like the perfect one to a book like this :)