A man (a famous marine biologist) and his wife have an argument; it turns violent. The woman and her 14, soon to be 15 year old daughter travel across the United States from California on the West Coast to Massachusetts where the woman's brother works on an apple farm. Along the journey (which follows a route designed by Joley, the woman's brother, in letters left at the post office of the previous stage) the woman remembers her childhood with a father who physically and sexually abused her. On the farm both mother and daughter fall in love with apple farmers. The marine biologist, a somewhat controlling man, follows them.
The story is told in fragments, from the point of view of the marine biologist, Oliver, his wife, Jane, her daughter, Rebecca, the brother/ uncle, Joley and the apple-farm owner, Sam. The narrative has an interesting structure: whilst Jane's sections travel forward in time, Rebecca's go backwards, creating something like a chiastic structure. The narratives adjoin in what is therefore clearly the central part of the book, when the road trip arrives at the cornfield in Iowa where Rebecca's plane crashed when she was a small child; Oliver is also coincident at this place. Thus, often, you know what happened and your interest is maintained by trying to jigsaw together the narrative so you understand why it happened. Also, the fundamental question of whether the man and his wife will get back together is left until the end of the book.
This can mean that the narrative sometimes feels a little bitty and there are events whose purpose I found difficult to pin down. It is not always easy to know whether what seem to be crucial turning points are truly so.
It also means that sometimes the same event is described by different narrators. I think Picoult misses a trick here. So far as I could see from a single reading, these events were described in exactly the same words, even down to the participants using the same words in a conversation. I would have expected each participant in an event to have put their own interpretation onto it and therefore to have remembered it differently, and this could have been used to develop character.
Of the characters, I was least convinced by Oliver, the controlling husband and marine biologist. The mother and daughter seemed scarcely differentiated.
The book seems to be pregnant with metaphor. Much of the action happens on an apple farm and there is a scene in which Sam the farm owner violently removes an apple from the hand of Jane saying that if she eats it she will die (because it was sprayed that morning with pesticide). How much more Garden of Eden do you need? (Perhaps the added hint that the local burger bar is called Adam's Rib!) On this interpretation the impossibly beautiful Joley is an angel (Jane's guardian angel? although during the incidents of physical abuse from their father Jane protected Joley); describing himself and what he does as “I fix the unfixable. I bring trees back from the dead. ... I've become mythic. The god of second chances.”. Hadley, the farm hand with whom Rebecca falls in love suffers a very real fall from grace. Rebecca herself has fallen, right at the start of the book, when she s one of only five survivors of a plane crash; perhaps she is the fallen angel Lucifer whose job is to tempt mankind. Paradise Lost anyone?
And what about the whales?
- Oliver the marine biologist is obsessed by them; his wife Jane will not even swim although she can because when she was a girl she was swimming with her adored little brother Joley and saw him getting into difficulties and had to rescue him so "I didn't want to offer myself so easily to the entity which has almost taken away the only family member I loved.”
- The population of humpback whales on the west coast is distinct and never mixes with the east coast whales so the journey of Jane and Rebecca from California to New England represents in some way a transgression, a flouting of the natural order.
- We are told that only male whales sing but the principal narratives in this book come from the women and the three men add little more than embellishments.
- Oliver points out the link between whales and the aeroplane out of whose shattered body Rebecca came as a child: images of Jonah? “Have you ever noticed the parallels between humpbacks and airplanes? The elongated body, the hub of the cockpit and the whale’s jawbone, the wings and the fingered fins, the cross section of the tail and the fluke?”
One thing I particularly enjoyed about this book is the way that Picoult can describe a normal even using a slightly different word and so make it memorable:
- “You're getting that weepy cow look again.”
- “When it is over her hair is free and our clothes are puddled around us.”
- “Mama’s crying carpeted my footsteps.”
- “Her socks had come off, bunched and burrowing in the toes of her boots.”
Other wonderful lines included:
- “If you leave things to their natural course, they go bad.”
- “We've been keeping tabs on the women that come in - no real lookers, yet, but it's been getting darker, and everyone's getting prettier.”
- “Oil and water don't mix ... but that's no reason they can't both sit in the same jar.”
- “In the real world, ‘forever’ may only be a weekend.”
An interesting book which kept me turning pages.
October 2019; 427 pages
October 2019; 427 pages