27/11/2008

My Sister's Keeper (by Jodi Picoult)

I've read one book by Jodi Picoult, but had never actually picked up what is probably her best-known novel. I was in two minds about reading it at all; I knew the plot was about a girl with severe leukemia, and her sister who was a designer baby, conceived for the purpose of donating her umbilical cord, and then other cells. I knew it was about a difficult legal case, too. And neither the medical nor legal aspects appealed.

Yet when I read 'Perfect Match', by the same author, I was very impressed. So when a friend offered to lend me 'My Sister's Keeper', I agreed with some enthusiasm.

The story opens as Anna, the younger sister, finds a lawyer - Campbell Alexander - and tells him that she wants to sue her parents for medical emancipation. She no longer wishes to donate organs to her sister Kate, and wants to make her own decisions rather than having her parents decide for her. Campbell, rather against his better judgement, agrees to take on the case.

The novel takes place over just a few days, as the case progresses. It's told from several different viewpoints - Anna, her mother Sara, her father Brian, her brother Jesse, Campbell and also Julia, who becomes Anna's temporary guardian: someone who may be able to make a decision about what is right for the family, without being emotionally involved.

There are a lot of subplots cleverly interwoven in this novel: we get to understand some of the past, and how Kate was first diagnosed. We see some of Anna's pain as she has to give first cells, and then bone marrow, to help her sister. We see Jesse feel unloved because Kate's needs are always put first: Jesse response by behaving in increasingly anti-social ways. Anna is more inclined to feel invisible, and used. Yet both of them are clearly very fond of Kate.

Brian is a likeable sort of person; he's a fire-fighter, and works long hours, sometimes trying to lose himself in his work. Sara is less believable; she's totally focussed on Kate, and will do anything possible to help her. That's understandable, of course; any mother would do the same. But it seems as if she hardly notices her other children, unaware of how hurt they both feel.

There's another whole sub-plot involving Campbell and Julia, who were once lovers, and who are still attracted to each other. And there's a strange, almost humorous ongoing subplot involving Campbell's dog. He's a service dog, yet Campbell is not blind. People keep asking him why he has a service dog, and his answers are more and more ludicrous as the book progresses.

When we finally discover why he has a service dog, I felt that I should have guessed, except that it didn't quite add up. He has a condition that should have been controllable by medication, and - more significantly - which should have prevented him from doing something which he does throughout the book, and again in the final chapters.

But the real plot, of course, is about the legal case. It's very thought-provoking, raising some interesting ethical issues. I had no idea what the judge was going to rule in the end, after some days of legal discussions; it was handled very well, I thought, and I was pleased with the decision.

Unfortunately, the final unexpected and shocking chapters felt tacked on the end, as if the author couldn't quite figure out how to finish the book. In a way it wasn't surprising... I'd half expected something that would turn the story upside-down, but the way it happened was dreadful, and then it was over too quickly.

Still, it was very well-written and surprisingly readable. The medical and legal aspects were woven in so well that they felt like part of the story; either Jodi Picoult has personal experience, or she has done some excellent and thorough research. The details weren't overdone or boring - the balance seemed, to me, exactly right. Had the ending been different, even if it was the obvious one, I'd have rated this very highly.

Recommended anyway, if only for bringing up so many intriguing issues related to family ethics and parenting.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 27th November 2008

1 comment:

Espana said...

The book is well-written and up until the end, a very enjoyable, just-one-more-chapter-before-bed read. My biggest complaint about the narration was that all the characters 'read' like adults. A nice feature of the story is that each chapter is told from a different point of view. Each character has it's own voice, but each voice seems to come with the same life experience. Anna, while a mature thirteen year old, often uses references and metaphors out of synch with her life experience. There is a girlishness to her, but she often comes off sounding thirty and not thirteen.