This was my first full on pandemic book. Others have mentioned or touched upon the changes of the last eighteen months, but this was full immersion!
I’ve been disappointed with the last two of Jodi Picoult’s books. They were still well written, but for some reason I felt detached from everyone in A Spark of Light – maybe because in the U.K. abortion isn’t such a contentious issue? The Book of Two Ways felt almost so full of detail that I was reading a textbook and losing interest in the story itself. This was a glorious return of form that I truly loved. Diana and her boyfriend Finn live in New York City, he is a doctor and she works at an auction house for fine art, on the verge of promotion to become an Art Specialist at Sotheby’s. She’s trying to acquire a Toulouse Lautrec painting that hangs in the bedroom of a Japanese artist -loosely based on Yoko Ono. Then, everything changes. Finn and Diana have a very set life plan and part of that was an upcoming visit to the Galápagos Islands. However there are rumours flying around in the medical community of a strange new virus in Wuhan, China. It seems like SARS in that it affects breathing, because it causes pneumonia and requires huge amounts of resources to keep patients alive. Diana’s boyfriend feels torn, as a doctor he’s worried and thinks they should be preparing but the president is on TV telling everyone it’s no worse than flu. What’s the truth?
When the hospital announces all leave is cancelled they know the virus is coming. Diana asks what they should do with the Galapagos holiday and he tells her to go without him. So she arrives on the last boat and with everything closed she has to take the kind offer of an apartment from a cleaner at the hotel called Abuela. She meets Abuela’s granddaughter Beatrice who appears to have secrets and an inner pain that brings out a maternal instinct Diana didn’t know she had. Tour guide and Beatrice’s father, Gabriel, is the perfect person to be stranded with. He knows every corner of the island and has no work, so he can show Diana some of the sights she would never have seen ordinarily. The islands sound miraculous and here Picoult really does create an incredible sense of place. The seals lazily basking on the jetty, the sea turtles and their nests buried in sand, lush vegetation and lizards lying around intertwined. I could see and taste the salt air. I loved the islanders too – their openness to Diana, the bartering market set up when the island quarantined itself from the world. Everything is vivid and almost hyper-real. Then came the twist!! Oh my goodness I did not expect that at all. This was brilliantly done and shocked me. Yet it was all too plausible.
Diana has one link to the world beyond the Galapagos and that’s the occasional email from Finn. In it we see the reality of the COVID-19 epidemic in New York City. They have so many people being admitted and not enough people recovering and moving through rehabilitation. What do you do when the resources simply run out? Finn is exhausted, has permanent bruises on his cheeks, because they have to keep their masks so tight and is struggling mentally. He describes to her the patients lost, ones he can’t forget, because there are too many to remember them all. This was tough reading and I’ll be honest, I learned things about the virus I’d never heard before such as vascular compromise, bowel necrosis and neurological deficit. There were points where I felt a bit breathless and panicky. As someone who had to shelter from the virus, it made me think twice about going out in a couple of places. Anyone who thinks it’s just a ‘bit of flu’ should be locked in a room with the audio book playing on repeat! Please don’t let this put you off though. It’s beautifully written and the insight it gives into how hard things have been for those in the medical profession is priceless. We owe it to them to read such well-researched and thoughtful accounts of the pandemic. The Galapagos sections are like paradise in comparison and this was the space where I could take a long deep breath.
This book is Picoult at her best, in that it has an interesting storyline, and characters as well as an issue she could really get her teeth into. As the book started I was prepared for it to be set within the art world and I was already curious to see her relationship with Kito – the Japanese art collector – because they seemed to be on a similar wavelength. I thought we might end up embroiled in a legal battle over ownership or whether the painting was a forgery. Then everything she’d built at the beginning became subsumed by the pandemic and it became a totally different story. The structure effectively echoes how our lives have been interrupted and changed forever. There are people who went into the pandemic with a job that no longer exists. People have lost friends, family members and partners. The pandemic has changed people, they are looking at how they live and making changes. We moved into the country, and I’m sure others have done similar, focusing on enjoying life and working to live instead of living to work. There are people like me, who were disabled, but felt like part of society still. Gradually, over the last 18 months, I have become a recluse and I’ve felt more and more separated from people. Especially those people who say the vulnerable should be kept inside, so that ‘normal people’ can have their lives back. I’ve felt like an inconvenience, and like we’re holding the rest of the country to ransom. I’m hoping these feelings change with time, but who knows? I could understand Diana’s decision at the end of the novel, it might have seemed illogical but I got it. When you’ve been through something momentous you change, and part of that is re-evaluating life and choosing what makes you happy. It’s trying to recapture hope. I don’t want things to ‘go back to the normal’; I want this pandemic to mean something and I want things to get better. Diana takes that decision for herself and I found that both brave and uplifting.
Meet The Author
Jodi Picoult is the author of twenty five internationally bestselling novels, including MY SISTER’S KEEPER, HOUSE RULES and SMALL GREAT THINGS, and has also co-written two YA books with her daughter Samantha van Leer, BETWEEN THE LINES and OFF THE PAGE. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and three children.
Her most recent adult novel, A SPARK OF LIGHT first published in the UK on 30th October 2018, and was a #1 Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller.
Follow Jodi Picoult on Twitter @JodiPicoult and find out more at http://www.jodipicoult.co.uk or on Facebook/JodiPicoultUK.