Thursday, December 16

Change of Heart – Jodie Picoult

When her husband died in a car crash, June thought she’d never be happy again, let alone find love. But the policeman who rescued her from the wreck and accompanied her to the hospital kept checking up on her and her infant daughter Elizabeth, and one morning June woke up to find her life had restarted – though Kurt accepted she would never love him like she loved her first husband, June also discovered that she could love as deeply and as truly once again, and Elizabeth adored the only father she’d ever known. Expecting another child, June’s life was perfect, until the day she opened the door to a young, odd man requesting work; though June was hesitant, he connected immediately with Elizabeth, and June took him on.
It was a decision that would tear apart her life once more, for Shay Bourne slaughtered Kurt and Elizabeth and, for the first time in over half a century, a New Hampshire prosecutor sought the death penalty.

Michael was conflicted about sentencing a man his own age to death – though unconvinced, the other members of the jury persuaded him, and became the twelfth juror to vote in favour of lethal injection. Twelve years later this decision has reshaped his life – burdened by guilt and plagued by anxiety attacks, he’s become a priest and found a kind of peace. That is until he’s assigned to be Shay’s spiritual adviser.
Maggie is a lawyer for the ACLU – her professional life is smooth and accomplished, but her personal life is narrow, peopled only by her rabbi father, hyper-critical mother, and Oliver, her pet rabbit. Restricted by her size, her self-doubt and her constant struggle against her mother's disapproval, Maggie is resigned to happiness only in regards to her career. Assigned to Shay’s case, she creates legal precedent when, learning that Shay wants to donate his organs after death, she fights not against the death penalty but against the method of lethal injection.
Lucius is an HIV-positive lifer, sentenced after he discovered his lover in the arms of another man and killed them both. An artist who uses whatever he can scavenge – from the candy shells of M&M’s to soot – to recreate portraits of the man he still loves, he occupies the cell next to Shay and narrates details of his last months, and the seemingly miraculous deeds wrought by Shay.
I’ve begun to find Picoult’s novels formulaic since reading My Sister’s Keeper, when she first used the technique of alternating between several differing first-person viewpoints in a linear narrative that builds toward a controversial event - a court case determining how much autonomy a minor has, in that case, or the campaign for a death row inmate to donate his heart after death, in this.
Entwined around the primary narrative is an ethically charged or controversial issue, the various perspectives of which are humanised and conveyed by the narrative voices. The opposing elements are generally intelligently articulated, and though emotion is present and influences perspectives, the characters usually retain their equilibrium and rationality. The final chapter is from a pivotal but previously unheard character, with a left-handed twist that jerks the narrative on to a different, often anticlimactic, track.
Familiarity with this technique meant that I spent much of the reading of Change of Heart making predictions about the plot, particularly plot twists, and about narrator and content of the final chapter. And I was right on all counts (spoiler alert): I knew from the moment I learned June was pregnant that the baby would be somehow unwell, and that her voice would conclude the novel. I suspected Shay found Kurt abusing his stepdaughter; once his sister, Grace Bourne, was introduced I suspected this mirrored abuse she sustained at the hands of her foster father. It was certainly clear as soon as Michael saw her burns that she set the fire that killed him, and that Shay took the blame to protect her, probably because he felt guilty about not being able to protect her from her abuser. Though I did not foresee the final, somewhat paranormal element of the novel’s final sentence, but by that time I was a little over the miraculous aspect of the novel.
I was also unimpressed by the method Maggie used to seek a medical opinion of alternative methods of execution that would be compatible with organ donation – because “it could take a busy doctor a week to call me back,” and rather than do any independent research, or call an organ transplantation coordinator, she pops into the local emergency department and fakes appendicitis so she can see a doctor. Not a cardiologist or cardiothoracic surgeon, not an immunologist, but whichever random resident assigned to assess her. I know ED physicians and ED nurses, and I can’t see the consultation she had with (the very gorgeous) Dr Gallagher happening. But things are different in novel-land, and he not only helps her but becomes invested in the case and the campaign.
All this could be interpreted as a dislike of the novel, and that would be an unfair impression. Picoult certainly manages to incorporate not only multiple viewpoints but also multiple, interrelated elements, many of which I was intellectually interested in.
They include: children with chronic illness; the fierce, protective love of parenthood; the natures of expiation, faith, mercy and truth; the willful blindness of those who do not want to see truths; the way experiences are shaped by perspective; the heavy, cloak-like bleakness of grief; the desire for vengeance; the theory of muscle memory, where organ recipients – particularly of hearts – take of characteristics of the deceased donor; the barbarity and irrationality of the US adherence to the death penalty; the inflexibility and biases of the prison system, including an assumption that all inmates are literate and speak (read and write) English; similarities and differences between religions, particularly Judaism and Christianity; the nature of divinity; the working of miracles, and perhaps the undoing of them; the shaping of Christianity, and alternative messages, including the Gnostic texts; the nature of heresy, and the history of the Catholic church; and the distortion of religion.

I was also moved on several occasion, particularly during June's recollection of Kurt's funeral:
Through the radios of the other policemen came the voice of the dispatcher: All units stand by for a broadcast.
Final call for Officer Kurt Nealon, number 144.
144, report to 360 West Main for one last assignment.
It was the address of the cemetery.
You will be in the best of hands. You will be deeply missed.
144, 10-7. The radio code for end of shift.
But the foreseeability of many of the elements gave Change of Heart too great a degree of predictability to me, and I felt as though she was just plugging different elements into their various, preassigned slots.
The Messianic aspect felt uneven, superficial, implausible and incongruent with the rest of the book.
Perhaps my reaction is in part because I only relatively recently read Handle with Care and so the parallels were more blinding than they would have been with more time. But I also found the characterisation, particularly of the women, somewhat uni-dimensional and weak - Maggie's obsession with her weight and resulting unattractiveness was irritating, and though in her thirties she read as mired in her teens; June was driven only by her enduring grief and her abiding maternal love, with no other personality traits portrayed - and that was disappointing.
Picoult's most recent book, House Rules, deals with an eighteen-year-old with Asperger's who's fascinated by forensics, and charged with murder. Lynn and I have decided that 2011 will be the Year of the Backlog, with no library books (apart from a few, predetermined exceptions); perhaps a twelve month break will give me enough space from Picoult's technique to enjoy it. - Alex

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