I was out of town with my family on Spring Break last week when I unexpectedly completed the novel I was reading and found myself without the stack of books on my nightstand patiently awaiting me to get to them. As luck would have it, I found myself in the UVA bookstore (fingers crossed that my daughter is accepted) and face-to-face with Picoult’s new novel. She is a brilliant writer but I often find her books a bit long considering my unfortunate time constraints on reading. No novel needs to be more than 120 thousand words—well-written or not—there are just too many to read and too little time to read them in. However, upon closer examination I was thrilled to see that the length was manageable, and without another thought, I had a new novel peaking out of the top of my purse. (I paid for it first, of course)
The first chapter about a woman, Zoe, who is pregnant after IVF and a music therapist, quickly draws me in. I’m captivated by Picoult’s seamless writing and her character’s struggle. By the end of the first chapter disaster strikes and I’m completely riveted. Chapter two switches to her husband’s, Max, POV and I am once again in awe of Picoult’s ability to get inside a character’s head and bring him/her to life on the page. My sympathy goes out to this man who feels like he has become nothing more than a sperm donor to a wife he deeply loves but who has become so obsessed with having a baby he barely recognizes their relationship anymore. What’s worse, he desperately wants to please her, to be worthy of her, and can’t stand the thought of letting her down.
He recalls the first time he went to the clinic to deposit a sample of his sperm. Once there he is locked in a room with videos and magazines meant to encourage the process. But as it turns out, an erotic memory of Zoe once when they’d gone camping does the trick. How absolutely sweet is that? Isn’t it every wife’s dream, to know that even with all her imperfections and when placed next to the perfect figures and full lips of models and porn stars, her husband desires her above all others?
But when Max can’t face another go at IVF he walks out and Zoe doesn’t go after him. I was heartbroken. So, of course I flip ahead and see that this story consists of three main characters, Zoe, Max and Vanessa. Then the plot spoiler in the back of my head—downside of being a writer myself—jumps to the accurate conclusion that this story will eventually turn into a lesbian romance of sorts. I’m straight and prefer more “traditional” love stories but the writing is just so captivating that I persevere.
When I get to the chapter that starts out, “Everyone wants to know what the sex is like,” I’ve reached my breaking point and I close the book for a final time. It’s not that I’m a prude or homophobic that stops me from reading further because I don’t think I am. After all, I have a gay character in my second book, Margo, and she’s one of my favorites. But by this point I’m having issues with the plot and am no longer relating to the characters. And honestly, I’m not the least bit interested in what “the sex” is like.
First: Picoult doesn’t give a good reason for Zoe and Max to throw their marriage away. No discussion. No: what went wrong? No: can we work this out. No: I want this—well, I don’t. It’s all way too convenient like the author just wanted leap to the part where Zoe figures out she’s gay.Max files for divorce and then that’s it. He’s miserable and drinking again. Bless his poor little shattered heart. Zoe has moved on making friends with Vanessa and focused all the things she didn’t like about Max. He’s messy, prefers surfing to working, and listens NPR and country music. Conversely, she’s an absolute music snob (just for the record, I prefer Elvis Costello to Jason Aldean, but still…) and for all her talk about how music speaks to the soul, heals and changes lives for the better, she begrudges him his choice in listening material based solely on her preferences being superior to his.
When I was a practicing marriage counselor this would be where I’d point out that a couple’s differences, the opposites they feel compelled to see as negatives, are actually the couple’s strengths. Men and women need to be opposite. The hunter/gatherer paired with the nurturer creates balance. We instinctively choose partners who differ from us to fill a void in ourselves, thus creating a whole. Unfortunately, for most of us it takes a professional to help us see that the annoying qualities in our partner are the very characteristics that drew to us to him/her in the first place. On the other hand, wouldn’t life be perfect if we could all be married to our best girlfriend? No smelly socks, endless sporting events, wasted hours on the toilet when there is grass to be mowed—what do they do in there anyway? But where’s the fun in that, the growth, the conflict and subsequent resolution…the climb?
Picoult doesn’t build a convincing foundation for Zoe to decide she’s gay. A childhood sexual encounter with a neighbor girl that sends Zoe running for cover, never to return, does more to show that she felt her friend’s advances were wrong and misguided then to provide evidence that she has been suppressing such inclinations all these years. And if people are born gay as Vanessa claims then how did Zoe get to the ripe old age of 40 without realizing that she was?
Second: Max, the simple-minded surfer/landscaper finds Jesus. Now admittedly, I am not the sharpest tool in the shed but I don’t like it when intellectuals paint those of us who believe in a higher power as zealots who aren’t capable of thinking for ourselves.
Just as Vanessa reveals that she knew she was a lesbian at a very young age, I would also confess that I don’t remember a time I didn’t believe in Christ’s existence. My actions and decisions may not always bear testimony to that fact but still, I’ve always “known.” I don’t know what makes a person gay, and quite frankly I don’t spend a lot of time pondering the question, but I imagine that “they,” like me, can no easier give up their innate feelings than I can mine.
Not all of us Christians have it in for the gay community. On the contrary, I believe those who choose an alternate lifestyle want what we all do—to be validated, understood and loved.
Just because I can’t relate to their preferences doesn’t give me the right to discriminate against them. It breaks my heart that a human being would be persecuted, for any reason, in the name of Christ. To me, being a Christian means that I will love all of God’s children, end of discussion. If that makes me a simpleton, then so be it.
Jodi Picoult still is, and will always be, one of my favorite authors but when all is said and done, I don’t feel that I can recommend this book, but then I can’t denounce it either. Once again I find myself caught between my liberal ideals and my valued membership in a conservative Christian church, exposing myself to reproof from both sides. Obviously I am not comfortable with some of the subject matter in this book, but then I am not totally convinced that the author and publisher is completely at ease with the content themselves. If they were then they would have come out (no pun intended) with the fact that this story deals with a homosexual relationship instead of hiding behind benign descriptions like, unexpected friendship slowly blossoms into love, which could mean just about anything. But the text is beautifully—skillfully—written and if reading this book causes a person otherwise bent on criticizing another for his/her life choices to rethink their accusations then it has earned its space on the bookshelf. If it lends peace of mind to a person struggling from said criticism, then likewise.
And so, as with everything in this life, it’s your choice.