#NetGalley #TheBookOfTwoWays #HodderandStoughton
A few years ago I was lucky enough to meet Jodi Picoult, and ask her some questions. She was promoting her novel Sing You Home and the question I asked was about the ideas she has for her novels; do the characters or the issue come to her first? Most of her novels are based round a controversial issue – from childhood illness, to abortion, racism and the rights to IVF embryos. These are not easy issues to tackle, particularly in the USA. Picoult replied that it was usually the issue that came first. She would mull it over for a while and if it stayed with her for a few weeks, she would know it had the potential for a novel. Then, slowly, the characters would start to come and tell their story. I have now read all of her novels so I was really excited to have an ARC of this via NetGalley.
The background to her latest work is Egyptology, most specifically The Book of Two Ways – an ancient text that tells of the two ways a Pharoah had of successfully reaching the Underworld, one by water and one by land. Picoult uses this as the PHD research subject for our main character Dawn, but it also informs the structure of the novel. Two narratives are told side by side, representing a split in Dawn’s life where she could have turned in a different direction. So we appear to be following parallel lives. Dawn has been married to Brian for several years and they have a teenage daughter, Meret. They are comfortably sliding into middle age and a mature stage of marriage, where Dawn observes love is not just a feeling, it’s a choice. Brian is a scientist, teaching at university and Meret takes after him, also having an interest in scientific experiments. From the outside they must look like a steady, settled marriage, but as always it’s a different story beneath the surface. The catalyst seems to come when a woman at Brian’s workplace strikes up a friendship, asking him to help with DIY around the flat and eventually offering the chance of an affair. Brian doesn’t take it, but for some reason even the possibility shakes Dawn to the core. It sends her spiralling back to her graduate years when she went to Egypt in pursuit of her PhD research and met Wyatt. Wyatt was a fellow researcher, their lines of enquiry complement each other, but he’s everything she hates in a person – arrogant and privileged. However, just as their dislike turns to passion, Dawn is dragged back to the USA for her mother’s death. She leaves Egypt with no idea whether she will be able to return. Now, in light of Brian’s revelations, Dawn wonders whether she made the right choice back then and is it too late to change her mind? Our other narrative follows that route.
I was fascinated by Dawn’s job as death doula – I’m only just aware of the existence of birth doulas so this was totally new to me. Once I’d read what her job entailed, I realised it would suit my experience and skills. I have had the privilege to be with someone as they’ve died a few times, through my husband’s final weeks but also when I’ve worked in a nursing home both as carer, and years later as an advocate for people with complex disabilities. Occasionally, if there was a resident I was fond of and they had no relatives to sit with them I would go in on my day off to be with them. I was young, and not always sure of what to do but sensed instinctively that someone needed to be there as these people left the world. Dawn fulfils a role many other professionals can’t and liaises between those professionals and the patient. She makes sure that what that person wants – whether it’s ice cream at midnight or to contact a long lost love – they get. Her relationship with client Win was one of best parts of this novel for me. To respond to a dying person with total focus and compassion, whilst making sure their final wishes and their dignity is intact, is a skill that can’t be taught. It is a great example of a therapeutic relationship because the women affect each other, this isn’t a one way street. Win has wisdom and counsel for Dawn.
The women can see echoes of each other’s lives in their early passionate first loves, followed by their stable, loving and respectful marriages. The care that Win gets from her husband is a world away from the affair she had as an art student with Thane Bernard, a famous painter. It reminded me of the UEA Fanthorpe poem ‘Atlas’ which begins ‘ there is a kind of love called maintenance’ and details the many practical ways people show love. Win proposes that we each have experience of these different kinds of relationships and the one we have last is wiser, more nurturing and understanding. The things we need as we’re older are very different from our idealistic and impulsive younger years, but we must never doubt that both are types of love. The Egyptian return narrative is interesting because we’re never fully sure where it fits or even whether it’s real or Dawn’s day dreaming. It’s also fascinating to see what her reception will be. All the time we’ve been listening to Dawn’s version and now we see the effect her sudden departure had on Wyatt. The rascally Indiana Jones I’d been expecting was really Dawn’s view of him. In reality he was shattered by her choice not to return. There’s a sense of time standing still in this ancient place, not just for the Pharaoh’s tombs but for the dig itself. Dawn finds the same house, serviced by the same family, but will her hope, that Wyatt hasn’t moved on either, come to pass? Even if his feelings haven’t changed what hope is there for a relationship that belonged in this temporary home, thousands of miles away. How will Wyatt respond to her marriage and her daughter? He doesn’t seem like the kind of person who will drop his work and become the family man.
This wasn’t my favourite Jodi Picoult novel, but it’s far from her worst. The research for the Egyptian sections alone must have been painstaking and I did have a belief in her characters – particularly in sections between Dawn and Win. I did feel there was a bit too much academic Egyptian detail too early and it prevented me getting into the emotions of the story. It was an interesting background to Dawn’s current work and how death rituals are very important and vary so much in different cultures. There were also a couple of aspects of Dawn’s return to the US that I didn’t understand, such as the timing of her return and meeting Brian. The big revelation towards the end of the book seemed unlikely. I couldn’t imagine that Dawn had never asked herself or even suspected. It was also amazing that her relationship to Brian had endured despite such a hurried start. I wondered if her strong reaction to his student’s crush was more about finding a way out. Brian has been a bit oblivious to this woman’s advances, but there is something endearing about that. He wouldn’t expect anyone to be interested and as soon as it’s apparent how she feels, he leaves and tells Dawn. There is a sense that Dawn wants out of this relationship, but is struggling to be the one who ends it. She doesn’t want to be the bad guy. This worry about hurting others can be seen as she tries to carry out Win’s final wishes too.
Often with Picoult’s books you can see that the ‘issue’ has come first, and I did wonder if the exploration of Ancient Egypt was something she’d wanted to write about for some time. It sat neatly with Dawn’s job and the whole novel’s theme of the end of life. It was interesting to think about the rituals carried out by the Egyptians – I’ve always wondered how they got a whole brain out of someone’s nose – and our squeamish response to death. We don’t talk about it, so we never express our feeling about the sort of death and funeral we want. It’s almost as if our enduring fascination with the burial chambers of the Pharaohs is in direct contrast to our avoidance of the subject in relation to ourselves. Dawn’s job cuts through that and in its way is a lot like counselling, in that she asks the questions and has the conversations that the dying person can’t have with their family. Interestingly, despite her role to be open about death, Dawn isn’t being honest or open about life. She’s settled herself into a default position where she’s felt safe, but a brush with death changes everything. I think I wanted a different ending. I felt for Meret who doesn’t seem to get much quality time with her mother and I can’t remember a point in the novel where they simply have fun together as a family. She’s expected to get her head round massive changes very quickly too. I would have liked Dawn to take some time with her daughter, just the two of them and get settled on their own terms. While it just doesn’t reach the heights of Small Great Things or The Storyteller for me, there was a lot to like here. The depth of research, the themes of life and death, and her characterisation of the central characters are strong and as always with Picoult you can relax knowing you’re with an absolute master at storytelling.