Fiction — print. Atria, 2013. 460 pgs. Library copy.
No longer do I eagerly await Picoult’s newest release; no longer do add myself to the wait list at the library as soon as the listing is poster. Her last two novels were mediocre at best, and I’ve cracked the formula for her novels so that the endings no longer surprise me. However, a friend asked me to read this novel since I’ve taken a handful of courses on the Holocaust and read a fair share of books — nonfiction and fiction — on the topic such that the topic has its own category tag on my book blog.
One of my favorite professors for Holocaust and genocide studies (actually, she’s one of my favorite professors of all time) gave a mini-lecture on how the Holocaust is often used as a crutch for novelist. Don’t know what to write about? Write about the Holocaust! Or, so her argument went. I never followed her line of thinking until I read this novel because the use of the Holocaust was so stilted and so unnecessary that I found myself groaning in frustration time and time again.
Picoult’s formula is to find a complex moral question, place it inside the context of a heart-wrenching setting, and then twist the ending so you are left with more questions than answers. In this book, she asks two questions — (1) can forgiveness be given for crimes against humanity? and (2) do you have the right to forgive someone for something committed not directly against you?. These are questions often entangled with the Holocaust; Eva Mozes Kor received an intense amount of backlash for her decision to forgive Josef Mengele’s for his cruel experiments on her at Auschwitz because some argue she does not have the right to grant forgiveness for those who are not alive to make that decision for themselves. Kor is a Holocaust survivor; Picoult’s main character, Sage, is not.
However, those familiar with Picoult’s work will recognize similarities between this novel and her 2008 novel Change of Heart. In that story, the main character must grapple with the request for forgiveness from the man convicted of sexually abusing and killing her daughter as well as her husband and decide whether or not to support his desire to die and donate his heart to her surviving daughter. In this story, the main character must grapple with the request for forgiveness from the man who physically abused and killed people as a guard at Auschwitz like her grandmother and decide whether or not to support his desire to die having been forgiven by a Jew. The setting is different and one is more localized in its focus than the other but the questions are virtually the same, which leads me to follow my professor’s belief that some authors use the Holocaust as a crutch for their novels.
Furthermore, the way Picoult writes about the Holocaust as the grandmother tells her story reads like a poorly written retelling of someone else’s memories she gleamed from the History Channel. I don’t doubt that Picoult did her research, but there in lies the problem — she is trying to impress her readers with her research so it becomes more of a history lesson than the emotional account of an individual. (The same problem occurs earlier in the book when she’s detailing the experiences of being a baker.) It’s too detached, too “and then this happened” that connecting to the character is difficult, and her attempts to emotionally manipulate her readers with this section of the novel are quite obvious.
The character development of Sage — ugh, I understand the woman was scared and therefore does not want to associate with people, but the backstory of why she is this is never fully fleshed out. It’s hard to believe that she could be so scared and meek throughout 90 percent of the novel only to become this sexy, fiery Nazi hunter and lover when Leo, the attorney for the Department of Justice, shows up to help her investigate the man claiming to be a Nazi SS officer who wants her to forgive him. The characters who deserved to have chapters from their point of view? Minka (Sage’s grandmother) and Josef, the Nazi. Leo should never have been included on that list. I was also incredibly tempted to skip the story within a story of the vampire because it seemed unnecessary. Personally, although it does become a bigger part of the story in the end, I still didn’t think reading the story for myself was necessary. It more of a distraction than anything else.
Bottom line: Other than the two books of Picoult I own, love(d?), and have yet to review, I doubt you’ll find any more Picoult reviews from me. This book was just too poorly written, too formulaic, and too busy capitalizing on the Holocaust to incline me to search out her next novel.