Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I have a love/hate relationship with Jodi Picoult. When I read Leaving Time a few years ago, I was thoroughly impressed with her writing... until the novel's big plot twist. Great writers leave breadcrumbs throughout their novels - subtle hints and clues that a clever reader can catch, digest, and use to interpret the unexpected narrative twists that have been embedded within a novel. However, with Leaving Time, Picoult didn't "earn" the big twist that upends the novel's plot. For me, at least, the book was spoiled by the author "pulling out the rug" from beneath her readers, something that left a sour taste in my mouth. Since then, I've been wary of Picoult's writing (especially after learning that another one of her novels, House Rules , promoted the debunked theory that vaccines cause autism). So, it was with some trepidation that I agreed to read Wish You Were Here with my book club. Once again, Ms. Picoult has left me a bit torn as a reader. Is the novel lovingly and eloquently crafted? Undoubtedly. Does the author "earn" her plot twist this time? That's open for debate.
In Wish You Were Here, an up-and-coming Sotheby's art dealer, Diana O'Toole, faces some pretty momentous life changes: an impending proposal from her surgeon boyfriend, a father who prematurely passed away after an accident, an absent mother who struggles with Alzheimer's, a high-pressure job in the art world, an expensive planned trip to the Galápagos Islands, and (last, but certainly not least) the COVID pandemic that throws her meticulously plotted life into turmoil. Without giving away too much, I will say that there is one heck of a plot twist about 2/3 of the way through the book - the kind that calls into question almost everything that you've read up to that point. If only for that reason, I have a feeling that M. Night Shyamalan would enthusiastically give Ms. Picoult two thumbs up for this novel.
So, what can I reveal about Wish You Were Here without ruining its big twist? It's probably safe to say that the book tackles the COVID pandemic in a timely, thoughtful manner. Diana's fiancée, Finn, works in a New York hospital during the early days of the 2020 shutdown, and we see the trauma and PTSD of the experience through his eyes. But Picoult's novel is more than just a quick cash-in on our shared global tragedy; rather, it's an attempt to find some semblance of meaning and purpose during an era of malady and malaise. Our protagonist, Diana, is a thoughtful, reflective narrator, someone whose interpersonal relationships are grounded in reality. Even when the novel broaches surrealist topics (again, I'm trying really hard to avoid spoilers!), Picoult tackles the trials and tribulations of her characters in a tender, eloquent fashion. While lesser writers might paint absent mothers, dead fathers, unfaithful lovers, and/or arrogant art dealers with the kind of broad brush strokes that reduce them to two-dimensional caricatures, Picoult brings a graceful sensitivity to even her most prickly creations. As she reminds us at one point, "Nobody’s all good or all bad. They just get painted that way."
Ultimately, Wish You Were Here is a novel about evolution and adaptation - not just of animals in the Galápagos, but of the human spirit. As Diana weathers her way through the seemingly insurmountable hurricane of the COVID pandemic, we watch her grow and change in ways that might seem unexpected. It's a novel about creation and recreation, incarnation and reincarnation, discovery and rediscovery. So, while Picoult might not have hit a homerun with this latest release, Wish You Were Here has redeemed her - at least a little bit - in my eyes. Clearly, Ms. Picoult is adapting and evolving like a literary finch in the Galápagos Islands. Charles Darwin would be proud.
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