Jodi Picoult

"Change of Heart"

(Reviewed by Danielle Bullen JUN 22, 2008)

“You said the purpose of religion was to bring people together. But does it really? Or does it--knowingly, purposefully, and intentionally--break them apart.”

Claire, Maggie, Michael, and Shay are just some of the characters in Change of Heart who are brought together by religion.  Shay Bourne, a handyman, is tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for the murder of a man he worked for, Kurt Nealon and his daughter. Eleven years later, as Shay waits on death row, the water in the pipes of the prison turns into wine.  That sets off a firestorm with Shay at the center.

As unexplainable occurrences happen in the cellblock--a dead bird is brought back to life, a fellow inmate is cured of AIDS--the attention surrounding Shay intensifies.  Rumors start, the media nicknames him the “Death Row Messiah,” and people from far and wide gather outside the prison, hoping to catch a glimpse of Shay.

Shay wants only one thing--to donate his heart to Claire, a young girl with a fatal heart birth defect. Claire Nealon is Kurt Nealon’s daughter. Claire's mother wants a heart but does not want the heart from the man who killed her husband and the sister that Claire never had a chance to meet.

Michael, a priest who already has a life-changing connection to Shay, visits him and becomes his spiritual advisor.  Witnessing the miracles, he begins to question all he knows about the Catholic Church. Maggie is an attorney for the ACLU who learns about Shay’s wish to donate his heart and becomes his lawyer. Shay believes he can only be saved if he gives his heart to Claire.  The chemicals used in lethal injections would make his heart unusable. Maggie goes to court to sue for execution by hanging instead, therefore keeping the heart viable.

The chapters of Change of Heart alternate between narrators. Various sides of the story are told from inside and outside the New Hampshire state prison. Interestingly, Shay never narrates. It is very much his story, but we only see him as the other characters do. Faith and its flipside, doubt, lay at the center of the novel. Shay says, “Everyone’s got a little God in them . . .and a little murder in them too. It’s how your life turns out that makes you lean to one side or another.”

Picoult writes about religion without crossing the line into preachiness.  The novel is fast-paced and the characters, especially Maggie and Michael, are well crafted and elicit empathy from the readers. Although it deals with controversial issues -- the death penalty, religion, bioethics to name a few -- Change of Heart is an entertaining yet thought-provoking novel that will stay with the reader after the last page.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 287 reviews


Editor's Note: It's always interesting when you read two books back to back and by chance they both cover similar material. This happened to me with Change of Heart and Christine Meldrum's Madapple (not reviewed yet). Both introduced The Gospel of Thomas and raised interesting questions through fiction. JC

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"Nineteen Minutes"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage JUN 22, 2008)

“It did not get dark in jail, just dim. That hardly mattered, since there was nothing to do but sleep anyway. Peter lay on the bench, wondering if you lost your hearing if you never got to use it. He remembered learning in one of his social studies classes that in the Old West, when Native Americans were thrown into jail, they sometimes dropped dead. The theory was that someone so used to the freedom of space couldn’t handle the confinement, but Peter had another interpretation. When the only company you had was yourself, and when you didn’t want to socialize, there was only one way to leave the room.”

Nineteen Minutes is the story of a massacre that takes place in a high school. Author Jodi Picoult implements an “it takes a village” type of approach to analyze and dissect how this crime occurred in the high school of the small town of Sterling, New Hampshire.

The book’s first chapter tells the story of the day of the shooting that leaves ten people dead and nineteen wounded. Shooter, Peter Houghton is not the sort of teen one would normally associate with a violent crime. He’s quiet, intelligent, sensitive, shy and introverted, the only son of two very successful parents—Lewis, a college professor and Laci, a midwife.

The first chapter establishes the shooter’s identity beyond a doubt, and the rest of the novel goes back and forth in time to pivotal, influential incidents that lead to the shooting. I have to hand it to Picoult. She never loses control of the narrative—in spite of the fact that the details are revealed by increments through crucial events. The author presents a refreshing premise: a high school shooting is instigated by far more complicated forces than the lyrics of some rock band.

Nineteen Minutes is one of those topical novels, and unfortunately high school shootings certainly hit the headlines far more than we wish. All of the shootings raise some terrible questions: how did this happen? Were there warning signs? How did the shooter access weaponry? Where were the parents of the shooter or shooters during all of this? In dissecting the shooting and examining the events that lead up to the fateful day, Nineteen Minutes paints Houghton as a victimized youth, so bullied and tormented by high school jocks, that in a fractured mental state, he returns to school armed to the teeth.

Picoult examines every angle of the story—the defense attorney, the police detective, the parents of the shooter, the aftermath in the town, etc. Every possible angle is examined, and for the most part the shallow characters are entirely unbelievable. For example, there’s judge Alex Cormier who’s such a bimbo that she imagines she can try the case against Houghton in spite of the fact that her 17-year-old daughter was at the scene and injured during the shooting. Before we can say "Conflict of Interest" we are supposed to swallow Alex’s chest beating dilemma—should she try the case or step down? If the trial is good for her career, is it good for her daughter? These sorts of navel-gazing dilemmas are rife throughout the novel. In another example, the police detective (another unbelievable character) gets the hots for Judge Cormier. So there’s more agony … should he date her? What if people find out? Will a romantic relationship with the judge impact the detective, blah, blah, blah. In trying to answer all of the questions left in the aftermath of the shooting, Nineteen Minutes is an ambitious novel, but the novel’s weepie, overly sensitive style is grating.  Stuffed full of sappy, trite lines, the novel hits every cliché. Here’s Alex Cormier in the hospital at her daughter’s bedside:

“We will go to the rain forest, or the pyramids, or a beach as white as bone. We will eat grapes from the vine, we will swim with sea turtles. We will walk miles on cobblestone streets. We will laugh, talk and confess. We will.”

It’s no doubt valuable and certainly fascinating to examine what makes someone snap into violence, and perhaps a different type of novel could examine the situation in a credible way, but Nineteen Minutes, emphasizing the emotional fallout of the shooting, is too superficial and shallow to even begin to delve deeply into such a complicated situation. If the reviews on Amazon are any indicator, then I certainly have the minority opinion here. As of today, Amazon boasts 395 reviews—230 of which are glowing 5-star homages; 98 are 4-star reviews, 43 are 3-star reviews, while at the bottom of the barrel are 15-2 star reviews and 9-1 star reviews. Oh well.

I realize the novel is fiction, full of fictional characters that don’t exist, and I actually have no problem whatsoever with the idea that everything here is fiction. To me, most of the fictional characters are very superficially drawn, very one-dimensional and unbelievable. But given the notoriety of real-life high school shootings, I found it impossible not to recall the horror of Columbine, and draw some similarities. I consider it most unfortunate that the novel seems determined to paint Peter as a victim—from his first day of kindergarten when someone grabs his Superman lunchbox. While it’s true that he is the recipient of horrible bullying, the author goes to great lengths to make her point by painting some of the victims as monstrous. Matt Royston, for example, one of the high school jocks in the book is obnoxious enough without adding the other dimensions that slip in as the chapters mount. Personally, I think it’s a cheap shot to paint the victims as somehow "asking for it." It’s certainly valid to analyze what pushes some people over the brink, but Nineteen Minutes goes overboard in its portrayals and its agenda to discuss peer bullying. In spite of the fact this was fiction, the novel left a bad taste in my mouth.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 595 reviews


Editor's Note: As with any novel that Ms. Picoult writes, there are multiple views and multiple opinions, which makes her novels ideal for any book club or classroom discussion. I appreciate Guy Savage's opinion and am pleased to post a review that so differs from my experience in reading the novel. Personally, I give credit that Ms. Picoult raises the issue of school bullying. However, reading Guy's review, I concede that combining the two subjects: school shooting and peer bullying could be insenstive to real victims. If you are part of a group discussing this book, I suggest that you also read Vernon God Little and We Need To Talk About Kevin.

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"Vanishing Acts"

(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie MAY 7, 2005)

"I realize, suddenly, that everyone is a liar. Memories are like a still life painted by ten different student artists: some will be blue-based; others red; some will be stark as Picasso and others as rich as Rembrandt; some will be foreshortened and others distant. Recollections are in the eyes of the beholder; no two held up side by side will ever quite match."

Cordelia Hopkins makes a living finding lost people. She and her beautiful bloodhound, Greta, have a terrific track record for leading successful search-and-rescue missions. They're very good at what they do. As Vanishing Acts progresses, it becomes obvious that Delia has had an unusually intense interest in loss, of both people and memory, stemming from her third year of life.
Raised by her warm and loving father, Andrew, Delia had as happy a childhood as anyone could wish for. Her dad, a widower, was always right there for her. She could talk to him about anything...and she still can, she believes. Sometimes, she would think about what it would be like to have a mother and fantasize about meeting her in heaven. Her mom died in a car crash when she was a small child. On the other hand, it seems to Cordelia that she and her father have lived forever in the same cozy house in rural New Hampshire, just the two of them. He has run a local senior center there for as long as she can remember, and has always been active in community affairs. Although she has vague memories of a woman who smelled of vanilla and apples, Delia remembers almost nothing of her life prior to Wexton, NH.
Her two next door neighbors are her two best friends and have been for most of her thirty-two years. She grew up with both of them. Eric Talcott, her fiance, is the father of her pre-school daughter, Sophie. They are in the process of planning their wedding. Fitzwilliam MacMurray, (Fitz), formed the other part of their triumvirate from the time they were little kids. They were a "fungible" trio, as Fitz once put it. In high school, when Eric and Delia fell in love, the three-way friendship continued and still does, years later.  Eric is now a lawyer, and Fitz a journalist.
As Sophie grows from a toddler to little girl, Delia begins to remember more about her own life at her daughter's age. Images, sounds, the feel of the sun on her head, bring back fragmented memories from another time - people, voices and a place she just cannot identify. Then one evening a policeman knocks on the door with a warrant for her father's arrest, and her life and world are turned upside down.
Vanishing Acts is written in the first person by each of five main characters: Delia, Andrew, Eric, Fitz, and  Elise. Each point of view provides part of the puzzle that is the history of the Hopkins' family. I am a big fan of the author's and have never disliked any of her novels. There are some books by Jodi Picoult which I love, and others I would prefer not to read twice. Vanishing Acts is in the latter category, and is probably the book I like least by Ms. Picoult. The narrative feels forced, even erratic at times, and disturbs the natural flow which usually marks the author's work. She has added unwarranted drama, which fits neither the storyline nor the characters. There are scenes from prison life that, although fascinating, are tremendously distracting and excessively violent - to no purpose. Certain characters, dialogue and scenarios are just out of place and make an otherwise believable plot incredible. Unnecessary touches, like change of font and the use of boldface type to distinguish between characters' stories and chapters, are also awkward. It is as if the author could not count on the strength of her plot and storytelling ability to sustain the novel, and needed to go for the artsy effect to provide a worthy result.
On the other hand, there are people who surface here, like the Native American woman, Ruthann, who is a jewel of a character - and a prime example of what Jodi Picoult fans look for when we purchase her novels without a second's thought. I am glad I read the book. I would have been sorry to miss it.
However, if you are on a tight budget, you may want to wait for it to come out in paperback, or borrow it from the library.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 219 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Vanishing Acts at SimonSays.com

Editor's Note: While I agree with much of what Jana L. Perskie says in her review, I do want to point out that a book group may find this book rich with discussion issues including the parallels between characters, topic matter and book structure. Although Jana did not find the prison scenes as effectively serving a purpose, I think a discussion as to why Ms. Picoult included them would be of interest; I feel that they do add a dimension to the whole subject of adapting to one's environment.

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About the Author:

Jodi PicoultJodi Picoult grew up in Nesconset, New York. She received an A.B. in creative writing from Princeton and a master's degree in education from Harvard. Jodi received the 2003 New England Book Award for her entire body of work. She has also been a frequent contributor to Family Fun Magazine. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and three children.

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