Jodi Picoult

"Perfect Match"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark APR 28, 2002)

"In her purse, her fingers slipped over the smooth leather cover of her checkbook, her sunglassess, a lipstick, the furry nut of a Life Saver, lost from its package. She found what she was looking for and grabbed it, surprised to see that it fit with the same familiar comfort as her husband's hand."

What does it mean to be a good mother? I don't normally steal the publisher's book description when writing my thoughts on a novel, but in the case of Perfect Match, well, this sums it up in more ways than I can tell you without spoiling the book. Wow! Let's just say that Picoult has come up with an extraordinary moral conflict. And given our recent headlines regarding the Catholic Church and pedophiles, a very timely one at that. Of course she couldn't have planned this, but it does show that she was paying attention to an unpleasant common thread developing in the news. And because it is in the news, it means that people will not be able to say that she is unfairly picking on the Catholic Church.

Picoult engages us from the beginning with the morning events in the Frost home giving us insight into Nina's working mother guilt. Most working mothers will relate to her morning. First she has to get her son out of bed, dressed, fed and to school in thirty minutes. He wasn't well the night before, and she knows she shouldn't send him to school, but if she gives him aspirin, just this once, then maybe she can prolong Miss Lydia's phone call just long enough to give the closing speech on the rape trial she is prosecuting. Normally, she relies on her husband Caleb for these tight situations, the ones where motherhood and career collide, but this particular morning Caleb is meeting with a new client who is trying to decide between buying a fence or hiring him to build a stonewall. To make matters worse, her son has wet his bed and she assumes it is out of embarrassment that he's being difficult. After much compromise on her part, they make it to school and work basically on time.

It is not that Nina planned to be a working mother while going to law school. She was told that she wouldn't be able to have children after an obstetrician botched removing an ovarian cyst. Then, five years earlier, when she thought she must be dying from some kind of parasite, a blood test revealed the miraculous news that she was pregnant. And this she would not give up for anything in the world; she loves Nathaniel and motherhood as much as her career. "There is no majority share; I am split down the middle, fifty-fifty." On the other hand, she will not lie and say that if she had known she'd be a mother that she would have chosen a less demanding career. She comforts herself with the thought that where most mother's lie in bed and worry about the horrors that could befall a child, she gets to do something about it.

For Nina Frost is the assistant district attorney who gets to go after the really bad guys, rapist and child molesters. Although the system isn't perfect, when she can get a child declared competent to stand trial, there still is no guarantee she'll get a conviction, but at least she can try. On this day after the trial closing, she goes to court with her young client, Rachel, for a hearing against Defense Attorney Fisher Carrington. He has an exceptional record for having kids declared incompetent, without even turning them to jelly while they testify, and this day is no different. Nina is realistic about this whole effect on a child. "I have tried hundreds of sexual abuse cases, seen hundreds of children on the stand. I have been one of the lawyers who tugs and pulls at them, until they reluctantly let go of the make-believe world they've dreamed to block out the truth. All this, in the name of conviction. But you cannot convince me that a competency hearing itself doesn't traumatize a child. You cannot convince me that if I win that hearing somehow, the child doesn't." So Fisher's client, the child's father, walks free. Realistically, if they did go to trial and she managed to convict it would be similar to other cases. "The defendant spent three years in jail. The Victim spent seven years in therapy." How do you define "best case scenario" in this situation?

So what happens to a woman like Nina Frost when she discovers that your own child is the victim of sexual abuse? She's already told us the pitfalls of the whole court system. Would a good mother put her child through it?

Picoult sets us up early for what will eventually happen. The quote I use at the top of the page is from the prologue and the object she is removing from her purse is a gun. Picoult cleverly gives us this information and lets it sit in the back of our minds while we get on with the events of the story, getting to know all the characters and wondering whom the perpetrator is. Although, Nina is central, and the story is basically from her point of view; we are also privy to the thoughts of her husband, Caleb and her best friend since childhood, Patrick Ducharme, a detective on the Biddeford, Maine police force. We also get an inside view from Nathaniel as he slowly reveals what happened to him. Fortunately, she does not dwell on the molestation. Instead, much of Nathaniel's viewpoint is told in metaphor-like anecdotes at the beginning of each chapter.

One other thing that Picoult does in this novel that is just, well, cool. She introduces a most original DNA riddle as the pivot to the plot. The DNA testing done on Nathaniel's underwear and that of the Priest's blood is a perfect match --- but is it? However, that's not the only basis for the title of the book. By the end, we have a another (eerie) appreciation for the term "perfect match." This the kind of novel that can be immediately enjoyed for its suspense elements but then when it is finished, you'll want to discuss it, especially if you like to get into character motivation and moral issues. Like her previous novels, I'd recommend Perfect Match to any reading group. But, in light of the approaching summer, I'd also put it on my list of great beach reads. However, it is highly recommended that the person lying on the towel next to you is also reading Perfect Match.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 170 reviews

Read an excerpt from Perfect Match at MostlyFiction.com

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"Salem Falls"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark APR 20, 2001)

Jack St. Bride arrives in Salem Falls on miserable March day without a even a winter coat, just the clothes on his back and forty-three dollars in his pocket. His only possessions returned to him after eight months in prison. Even before he arrived in Salem Falls, he knew that he'd never be going back to his old life, but a "Help Wanted" sign in diner window cinched it for him. His new life would be as the mystery man in this small town. A town that held no resemblance to the prep school town he used to live in.

Meanwhile Addie Peabody is having a bad day as the owner of the "Do-or-Diner." The dishwasher and refrigerator have both failed leaving her in a position of either receiving a health violation or the loss of income. Just as she's come up with a plan to store snowmen in her walk-in freezer to save the food, Officer Orren arrives on official business. Seems like her father has just been arrested for taking a trip to the liquor store on his ride-on mower, without a valid driver's license.

When Addie arrives back to the diner, the Health Inspector is at the counter having a bowl of stew. She takes advantage of Jack's fortuitous arrival to introduce him as the repairman and Jack does a convincing improvisation. After that, the part-time minimum wage job as dishwasher is his. A fine position for someone with a Ph.D. in history and a requirement to file as a sexual offender at the police department of his new town.

Salem Falls is a story of a modern day witch hunt in which a man is wrongfully accused of raping one of his female students. Although the evidence is tangible, it is coincidental. Nevertheless, Jack is convinced by his court appointed attorney that he has no chance at a trial and is recommended to take a plea in return for a short jail sentence. But to do this, he must admit guilt. This admittance is as good as having committed the crime. But this doesn't really matter, even before his false plea, his friends and family have distanced

As much as Jack likes the pace of Salem Falls, his boss Addie, her father, and the diner, events are conspiring against him yet again. A group of well off high school girls have formed a coven and are practicing magic. The leader of the coven, Gillian, is also the spoiled daughter of the town's most respected businessman, the owner of Duncan Pharmaceuticals. Gillian wants Jack, bad. But fortunately, so does Addie, who even after learning the truth of his recent past is willing to stand behind him. Until, the morning Jack is falsely arrested for raping Gillian.

Once again, Jodi Picoult puts together a solid novel with an interesting legal and psychological situation. This time she demonstrates how once labeled, society will unwittingly conspire against that person, resulting in the trial being over before it has begun. Like those accused of witchcraft in 1692, the charged are defenseless against the accusation. Picoult closely mirrors the incidents of 1692 in which a person innocently or selfishly identifies the offender, but once they see what they have done and the seriousness of the accusation, tries to rescind. But by then it is too late, and it is assumed the victim is protecting (or has had a cast spell on them) giving no room for the possibility that the accuser is now telling the truth.

Interestingly, Picoult chooses Jack's second accuser to be a practicing witch. This creates an absorbing juxtaposition and as well as giving levity to the once shunned craft. Coincidentally, soon after reading this novel, I heard a news program in which the study of Wiccan is to be added as a course at one of England's Universities. How times change. But that's it, whatever the current evil, whether witchcraft, anti-Communism or ostracizing sexual offenders, Picoult's novel points out that society behaves in a predictable pattern. In time, the truths work themselves out and history can look back and see the "witch hunt" for what is was. Yes there were witches, but not everyone accused was a witch, but once accused, the momentum takes over and the "evidence" points to guilt.

My only disappointment in the novel is that Gillian's actual rapist was not even hinted at during the trial. As the reader you have an idea as to who the true owner of the semen on Gillian's leg is. But the defense doesn't try to bring out a possible boyfriend during the trial (as ABC's The Practice would call "plan B.") But I believe Picoult's point is, like the Crucible, there is always more happening in a small town than what is at focus and she may have written a more credible story with this one secret remaining unsaid. (But confirmed by the end.)

Salem Falls is the second Jodi Picoult novel I've had the pleasure to read. She does an incredible job researching her subject matter and bringing a town alive. While this novel is clearly about false accusations and the havoc its wreaks on reputations, it also brings out some of today's controversial legal issues such a Megan's Law, DNA evidence and the intricacies of statutory rape. There is so much material here that any reading group should put Salem Falls on this year's reading list for discussion.

  • Amazon reader rating: from 170 reviews
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"Plain Truth"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark May 21, 2000)

A liveborn baby is found dead on an Amish dairy farm, apparently suffocated by hand. All physical evidence shows that Katie Fisher, the eighteen year old unmarried daughter of the farmer, has very recently given birth. She denies that she was pregnant and denies delivering a baby. Conclusively, or so says the District Attorney's office, if she can lie about one fact, then she must also be lying about murdering her own baby.

Reluctantly, Philadelphia Defense Attorney, Ellie Hathaway, volunteers to take the case as a favor to her Aunt Leda whom she is visiting. As a condition to bail, Ellie spontaneously volunteers to be Katie's guardian, which requires her to move into the Amish family farm house. Only after she is there does she begin to understand the technical difficulties (no electricity) and the cultural idiosyncrasies that impede her preparations for Katie's defense.

So what does it mean to defend a Plain girl? For us Englischers, we can see how a confused teenage girl might solve her problems by abandoning or suffocating a new born. As sad and unforgivable as it is, we are hardened and don't have any doubt that it can and has happened. Call it temporary insanity or any other psychobabble and the defense is ready made. For a person raised Amish, it would be impossible to commit murder, much less lie about it. The very essence of being Plain is to be humble and selfless. The highest praise to others in the community is to conform, to never do anything that would make one stand out, be better or different than anyone else, to never ever put oneself ahead of another, no matter the hardship. To be raised Amish is to always concede to a higher authority. Neonatalcide is not an Amish girl's option, or is it?

The setting of the Plain Truth is the first draw of this novel, but it is the depth and psychological underpinnings of the characters that provide the surprising grip within the story. Picoult reaches right down into the heart and the soul of the Amish people to make us understand the irony and the impossibility of Plain folk facing our legal system. When Ellie files a simple motion to dismiss based on the fact that Katie can not ever have a trial of her peers, she only scratches the surface of inconsistencies between the Amish and Englischer cultures. For if Katie could have a jury of her peers, there would be no trial, since the mere fact that she is Plain would raise reasonable doubt that she is the murderer. Of course, there would be no request for a trial since a Amish girl would not defend herself against the accusation of her community.

Besides the intriguing legal drama, there's Katie's psychological state. In a story about values and choices and cultural assumptions, it is interesting to note that the loopholes that make up Katie's psychological framework are the same as those built into the Amish system. This makes sense in a society that values community above self. Juxtapose that observation next to Ellie's current crisis of her own heart and soul and it hints at the sacrifice we make for personal success and individuality.

I highly recommend Plain Truth. It's a good legal drama with keen psychological study of a unique culture. Picoult's novel is very readable with strong, likable characters. Ellie, Katie and the rest of the community are going to stay with me for a long time. There's is so much more to this story than what I've mentioned in these few paragraphs that I can easily see this as a reading group selection.

  • Amazon reader rating: from 329 reviews

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

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About the Author:

Jodi 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. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and three children. She has also been a frequent contributor to Family Fun Magazine.

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