Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Title Thirty: Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult

I'm such a sucker for Jodi Picoult novels. I'm in the middle of reading another one right now. I can't help it; I'm powerless. I know when I pick up one of her books that I'm going to ride an intellectual and emotional rollercoaster that redefines whatever concepts I have about fairness and justice. It's pretty rad.

June Nealon had a good life; she was raising her seven-year-old daughter Elizabeth with her husband Kurt and counting down the final weeks until the birth of her younger daughter Claire when her world was blown apart by the murders of her husband and child, leaving her clinging to Claire, all that she has left. The killer, handyman Shay Bourne, became the first person in over forty years to be sentenced to the death penalty in New Hampshire. Eleven years later, as Shay's time to die approaches, so does Claire's - the girl needs a heart transplant to survive. When Bourne decides that he has to donate his heart to Claire to right some cosmic wrong, it creates an outcry that is dwarfed only by Bourne's sudden transfiguration into a Christ figure; he turns the water in the cell block toilets to wine, brings a dead robin back to life, and cures a fellow inmate of AIDS. Added to the cast of characters are a priest who served on the jury that found Bourne guilty and sentenced him to death, now questioning his own faith in the face of what is happening around Shay, and an agnostic lawyer for the ACLU who takes on Shay Bourne's case and champions his right to die in a manner that will allow for organ donation (hanging, as opposed to lethal injection) while intending to use it as a hammer to shatter the idea of the death penalty.

When you read a Picoult novel, you have to suspend some disbelief. There's always a little mystical/mysterious woo-woo happening; some books, like The Pact and My Sister's Keeper, are much more rooted in fact, while others, like Salem Falls, Mercy, and Keeping Faith ask you to imagine a world where magic and miracles happen. Change of Heart walks a line somewhere between the two camps; on the one hand, really, an uneducated carpenter (anvil!) is suddenly healing the sick and quoting Gnostic gospels? On the other, a sick kid needs a heart and there's enough medical and legal jargon to keep the story grounded in reality for a good part of the novel.

Ultimately, it's a story about people. Picoult is very good at creating complex characters and setting a stage for them to interact. Shay Bourne is going to die at the end; that is never in question. He killed a little girl and her father for reasons that come out later, but he never denies that he murdered them and believes that he needs to die to even the scales, and that saving Claire is his ultimate purpose. As in other books, Picoult uses her people to probe the edges of a thorny issue and gives an ending that is just satisfactory enough, but still leaves some regret. That's the kind of story that I like. I don't need neat corners and tidy bows; I want to think, and this book delivers.

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