I bought a copy of Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper several months ago, but only read it recently, considering it as a possible selection for my reading group. Immediately, I was sucked into the story and plowed through the 400-plus pages in about a day. Not being a fast reader, this was unusual for me. (And who wants to read quickly anyway? I always want to linger with the books I like.)
There are many things that recommend this book -- an intriguing moral dilemma involving organ donation, the emotional drama of a family torn apart by an illness that maims the siblings more than the cancer-stricken daughter, an accurate portrayal of how society reacts to 'visible' disabilities rather than those less obvious to the onlooker, and a narrative point of view that changes with each chapter, giving insight into more than just the main character.
The book deals well with the emotionally charged issue of extraordinary medical treatments and genetic engineering. The book walks a tight-rope, balancing the interests of the sick child with those of the child 'created' for the sole purpose of being a genetic match designed for saving her sister. One of the benefits of fiction is that it can deal with such issues in ways that scientific discourse and political arguments can not. As humans we thrive on stories and storytelling can be the vehicle for figuring out where one stands on an issue, for understanding that the answers are not simple, straightforward, black-and-white decisions. Picoult does this without delving too far into medical jingo and without being too heavy-handed regarding either side of the debate. Though striving to present multiple points of view, the book still leans towards one side of the argument. In part this is due to a lackluster, one-dimensional portrayal of the mother.
The technique of each character narrating chapters is interesting and works well to move the plot forward. However, some of these chapters are much stronger than the others. Anna, the healthy sister no longer willing to undergo medical procedures to save her dying sister, is clearly the protagonist and the chapters narrated by her are among the best written in the book. Clearly the author is intent on this being Anna's story, while trying to give balance and dimension to the other characters. Early in the book, the chapters narrated by the mother Sara are griping, capturing the emotions of a mother's fear of losing her child. Later in the book, as Sara becomes the enemy of Anna, fighting her teenage daughter in court, her chapters are one sided. They don't seem as true as the earlier chapter, failing to fully give the mother's point of view, painting her as a monster only loving one child, a mother best skilled at nurturing a sick child while being neglectful of her other children. When the mother claims that she cannot make a decision that would benefit both children, and that she realizes it is a Solomon-esque decision, the reader doesn't believe it.
Similarly, other chapters in the book present some relevant ideas regarding the ethical dilemmas involved, serve to move the plot forward and develop the minor characters. However, most of the minor characters are not well developed. The chapters between the child advocate and the lawyer add an unnecessary romance-novel love story to the book, but aren't convincing regarding the emotional motivations of the characters. The chapters about the father portray a man always ready to save others in his professional life, but distant from his own family. While the father talks about having given up on his teenage son, the book doesn't give any indication of his remorse, or realization of how his behavior may have influenced his son. When he stands up for Anna, the reader wonders why he hadn't done so before. The best written minor character is the character who narrates the fewest chapters -- Jesse, the delinquent son. His intelligence, crippled by his anger, is evident; his cries for parental attention while aware that it is unattainable is striking. Picoult's introduction to the book mentions her own experiences as a parent of a sick child. I find it interesting, then, that it is the teenagers, not the parents who are the best portrayed characters in the book.
Picoult's writing kept me reading, and I understand why her books are popular. The emotional tug-of-war is one that could appeal to a female reader who looking for a book that is 'a good cry'. But, as I approached the final pages I felt cheated, manipulated by the author, my emotions and expectations toyed with. In a published interview, Picoult revealed that her own child didn't talk to her for a week after reading the book because of the ending. Yet, she claimed, she couldn't have ended the story in any other way. Perhaps that's because she was looking for a nice, tidy ending that let everyone be happy. Life is not that way. The ending was an easy way out for the author.
The quotes from works by authors such as Shakespeare, Milton, and Edna St. Vincent Milay preceding each section of the book were a nice touch. At first, they might appear out of place, a bit disjointed from the narrative, but in retrospect, they subtly frame the action to come.
I would recommend this book. For a reading group, it certainly provides many topics for discussion.