My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult

I finished reading My Sister’s Keeper this evening, and am now lounging about my apartment in Surfer’s Paradise, feeling a little hollow. This is because it was a VERY GOOD BOOK. It is not the sort of thing I would pick up of my own accord necessarily, but reading habits are often informed by the people we know. A lot of the time, if one of my friends enjoys something, that is enough to make me curious about it. If I like a person, then that book will no doubt have resonances of that person in it.

It’s also good, I believe, to read things that are popular. I’m interested to see what sells. I read The Da Vinci Code for this reason, and still regret doing so, to this day. It is however many hours of my life that I won’t get back. My Sister’s Keeper, on the other hand, is a well-written book by a really good writer.

In my previous entry, I appended a link to an interview with Rodney Hall. He talks about the Marquez novel Autumn of the Patriarch and remarks on how it is “free of story – that overrated and formalistic structure.” It’s certainly not for me to disagree with the Master, but I happen to like stories. As do a lot of other people. And the act of putting together a story is one of, if not the most important acts in resisting the existential darkness that threatens to engulf us.

This is especially pertinent to the novel, My Sister’s Keeper. Basically, it’s about a thirteen year old girl, Anna, who seeks to sue her parents for the right to medical emancipation. She was conceived as a donor for her sister Kate, who is dying of a rare strain of leukaemia. Anna doesn’t want to be subjected to painful operations anymore. She also wants an identity separate to her sister’s.

It’s a great premise for a novel, the story tied together with a string of Gordian knots. Picoult is a sophisticated novelist. The two principal metaphors enter the novel through the father, Brian, and it shifts first-person narrators throughout the course of the story, playing out the conflicts that each of them experiences. It’s interesting how the children – Kate, Anna and Jesse – express themselves metaphorically through either their relationship to fire (Brian is a fireman) or astronomy (Brian is also an amateur astronomer who teaches his children about the stars). Anna has drawn her own sophisticated poetic conclusions about her situation, which she expresses in terms of what her father has taught her, almost like a mythic rubric.  

Picoult’s prose is also very good. She writes in a plain, uncluttered style which is always serving the story, but aside from the occasionally mawkish note, is genuinely poetic and evocative.

It’s a truly popular novel in the sense that Rodney would describe it as ‘phoney’. Scenes are set up to draw you in and spin you around, and the book sets up expectations and then violates them, to generate the actual momentum you get from surprise. And, in the tradition of true popular fiction, the end is a genuine shocker which spins the rest of the book around on its head.

I often felt as if I was ‘inside’ the Fitzgerald family’s predicament. Having a dying child and having to rely on another child, at that child’s expense to save it, is an entirely insoluble situation. It’s always very clear that the family has been shaped by the sacrifices that it has made to sustain Kate, and conversely, they are bonded by the love that has grown from it. We all want to read these kinds of stories and believe in them, and readers are very cynical about them because so often the writer cannot get inside the situation in order to find the reality for us. We feel fobbed off when we are fed emotional clichés. Picoult, however, has achieved it.

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