A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult

39072210Fiction — Kindle edition. Ballantine Books, 2018. 352 pgs. Library copy.

A man enters the premise at a women’s health clinic in Jackson, Mississippi and opens fire killing both the clinic’s owner and a nurse and wounding a doctor and a woman accompanying a minor. When the hostage negotiator, Hugh McElroy, arrives on scene, he learns the injured woman is his sister and the minor is his teenage daughter.

Assuming his daughter, Wren, has an appointment at the clinic for an abortion — the one health service the clinic is notorious for — Hugh tries to foster a connection with the gunman. After all, a witness says the gunman opened fire after blaming the clinic for killing his grandchild.

Yet, as the story moves backwards in time, the reason for Wren’s visit (as well as that for the rest of the women) becomes clear. And Hugh has to figure out a way to free all the hostages without losing his tenuous connection with the gunman.

Picoult used to be one of my favorite authors, but her more recent books have been more miss than hit for me. I’d considered skipping this one yet changed my mind when I learned Picoult would be tackling one of the most controversial issues in American society, abortion. She has a way of presenting complex, emotional topics in an evenhanded yet moving manner, and I hoped that would be the case with this novel.

It is clear Picoult tried to approach this issue with respect for both sides of the argument whilst maintaining many of the shades of gray that muddle this issue in America. The doctor is based on real-life abortion provider, Dr. Willie Parker, and draws on his own Christian faith to guide his work. The anti-abortion protester caught in the hostage situation condemns those for a choice she made yet was a victim of a crime that most Americans agree justifies abortion.

Two of the hostages are women visiting the clinic for the other health services they offer — cancer screenings and birth control — but are accosted by protesters outside who make assumptions as to why they are visiting the clinic. And one of the nurses who works so diligently to protect the patients being held hostage is pregnant, herself.

“She had come to the clinic because she didn’t want to be a little girl anymore. But it wasn’t having sex that made you a woman. It was having to make decisions, sometimes terrible ones. Children were told what to do. Adults made up their own minds, even when the options tore them apart.”

Despite all these shades of gray and (seemingly) multidimensional characters, the novel is rather flat and devoid of much emotion. Part of me thinks this could be because of the structure of the novel. The plot progresses backwards in time to unveil more about each character, which eliminates most of the intrigue in the story. This style may have been done to get the reader to focus on the characters rather than the hostage situation, but the slow trickle of details is far less interesting than I thought jumping to the conclusion could be.

The other part of me thinks the lack of emotion and flat presentation was because there weren’t many unique twists and turns to the story. The link between the hostage situation and the woman arrested for inducing her own abortion at home is obvious from the start. The characters are all stereotypes in the abortion debate.

Picoult says in the afterward that she wanted to present her protesters as more then religious zealous, and she does include a scene where one fundamentalist Christian protester is open to dialogue about their position. But religious is the motivating factor of all but one protester, including the gunman, and I don’t think she achieved this goal at all.

What did I enjoy about this book? Well, I liked the afterward where Picoult discusses the contradictions she sees in the abortion debate and yet couldn’t include in the book. I also how medical accurate the book is. I’ve had some issues in the past with Picoult’s research on wolf biology and the Holocaust, but it is clear she spent a tremendous amount of time checking and double checking all her information. And, despite the stereotypical nature of the characters, I still liked and felt for all the hostages.

Ultimately, though, this book didn’t live up to the high expectations I have for Picoult’s novels. It’s far better than the last two I read, but not on par with some of her earlier works.


  1. Jeane

    I liked the first Picoult book I read okay, but after that they did not really work for me. This sounds like one I’ll be skipping, especially because I don’t really care for narratives that skip around in time.


    • I’m finding they’re getting very formulaic. This one, thankfully, broke her typical format, but that I really didn’t care for the backwards narrative. Definitely wouldn’t recommend it for you, Jeane, if you don’t like books that skip around in time.


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