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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Viewing an authors work as a whole: Jodi Picoult

Published: March 7, 2013
Section: Arts, Etc.

Jodi Picoult is practically a household name. The author of “My Sisters Keeper,” “Nineteen Minutes” and 16 other novels, Picoult is known for writing on controversial topics and courtroom drama. Yet, while many of her novels have spawned movies and book groups, Picoult has not always been the strong writer she is today.

Picoult’s first book, “Song of the Humpback Whale,” about an abusive and distant husband, was published in 1992. I recently read “Picture Perfect” (1995), which is also about an abusive relationship, yet one involving a movie star husband. In examining Picoult’s body of work, it appears that it took her years and a few novels to really get her footing. Her earlier works are simple, with one primary plot line, the others serving as useless distractions. Most still have the Picoult twist ending, but it is clear that Picoult has matured as a writer.

Readers should be wary of picking up early Picoult books expecting to enjoy them. “Picture Perfect” would make a much better soap opera than a novel. The main character, Cassie, is an anthropologist who suffers physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her extremely famous movie star husband, Alex. At the start of the novel, Cassie is suffering from amnesia. She forgets about Alex, and lives in the home of Will Flying Horse, a half-Lakota police officer that falls in love with her. The novel turns to Cassie running away, then returning and then again fleeing from Alex. There is also some time spent on a Native American reservation and Cassie gives birth to a baby who complicates relationships. Yet, the characters are entirely flat. Will spends the entire book angry, unable to find a place on the reservation or in Los Angeles. Cassie is flighty and not a very likable character, and her love and adoration toward Alex are not clearly explained or justifiable. Readers do not root for Cassie to escape Alex’s clutches, they sit back and read apathetically toward the novel’s twist, but still boring, conclusion.

More recent Picoult books avoid the pitfalls of “Picture Perfect.” “The Pact,” penned in 1998, shows inklings of Picoult’s skill in writing from a male standpoint, from the point of view of a distressed teenager. Picoult improves in creating less stereotypical characters, from the married-turned-lesbian musician in “Sing You Home” (2011) to the death row inmate in “Change of Heart” (2008).

Picoult still struggles with creating unique voices for her characters. In “My Sisters Keeper” (2004), Picoult frequently changes the narration, switching among the three younger siblings and the older parental generation. Yet, the father sounds like the brother, whose voice is very similar to the sister. Picoult’s strength is not her characters’ thoughts. Instead, it is their actions, and the twisting and suspenseful plot lines she devises. Her advancement in writing is seen through more unique plot events. “Picture Perfect” circles on domestic abuse, a difficult topic to write about without seeming trite or rehashing what other authors have written. Picoult has gotten better at choosing hot topics, from the Amish world to court cases involving child molestation.

Picoult should also be admired for her research. As many of her novels involve in-depth accounts of court cases, Picoult is well-versed in the law. She thoroughly immerses herself in the worlds of her novels. In the case of “The Tenth Circle” (2006), a father-daughter novel about rape and leaving home behind, Picoult actually traveled to the Alaskan bush. In an interview, she described using a dog sled and never having enough clothes to stay completely warm. Picoult does not impulsively pick her topics; she is meticulous and knowledgeable.

Authors are an interesting breed. Some write one novel they can never again match up to, such as J.D. Salinger and “The Catcher in the Rye.” Others start strong and fade out as they age. While Picoult still has a long way to go if she wants to measure up to Salinger, one thing is true: she is taking steps in the right direction. As her new book “The Storyteller” (which circles thematically around The Holocaust) is released, readers can hope that Picoult continues to grow.