A Book Worth Discovering: My Sister's Keeper
How did I miss this?
Have you ever “discovered” an amazing book that was published some years ago but somehow slipped under your radar? If so, you can empathize with my delight in discovering Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, published in 2004. When I purchased it at a book fair recently, I certainly wasn't aware of the impact this novel would have on me or of the self-examination it would inspire.
A Rotating Narration For A Multi-Layered Plot
The plot of this novel revolves around the Fizgerald family, whose lives are tethered to and revolve around around 16-year-old Kate Fitzgerald, who at the age of three was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. The many layers of this story unfold from and are entangled within this fact. The details of the story, both past and present, are presented in the first person. If you’re familiar with Jodi Picoult’s literary style, however, you’ll probably guess that this isn’t just any first person narration. In fact, the narration isn’t limited to any one person. Ms. Picoult has mastered the art of having each of the characters offers his or her thoughts and just as masterfully alternates chapters with different characters speaking. This technique not only creates suspense but also sustains reader interest. In effect, it draws a masterful literary version of connect-the-dots, all of which have been seamlessly connected by the end of the book. (I'd be interested to learn how the 2009 film version accomplishes this.)
I'd like you to meet....
The first narrator to whom the reader is introduced is Anna, the “keeper” noted in the book’s tite. Anna is a thirteen -year- old girl who has always known that through the magic of genetic engineering, she was created for just one reason: to keep her sister, Kate, alive. (Imagine the mixed feelings that knowledge alone might generate.) Known by almost everyone with whom she's come in contact as "the sister of that poor girl who has leukemia," Anna has spent so much time serving as a donor that little time remained to do anything else. One by one, chapter by chapter, the other characters are introduced and developed, each by means of his/her own narration.
Anna’s sister Kate is a teen-ager who is longing for normalcy but has never had the opportunity to “be like the othe kids.” Literally from the time her sister was born, Kate has been depending on Anna’s “gifts,”( i..e., bone marrow, lymphocytes, and now, possibly, a kidney) to survive. Her life has been a series of doctor appointments, hospitalizations, surgeries, remissions, and agonizing relapses. In other words, during most of her lifetime, Kate has been fighting for her life.
Sara is the mother who learned years ago that her daugter would die unless a donor who was the perfect match was found. The only way that would happen, though, would be if she and her husband agreed, essentailly, to have a “designer baby.” ( What would you do?) Since making that decision, she has almost exclusively devoted herself to saving Kate. Her husband, Brian, a firefighter, is a kind man who seems to be caught in the middle of the flames that threaten to erupt beneath the surface of his family.
I musn’t forget Jesse (particularly since it seems that the rest of the world has), the older brother of the two young women, one of whom is alive only because of the other. Jesse’s parents have been so focused on that situation that he has been left pretty much to fend for himself, whoever that “self” might be. Jesse certainly doesn’t seem to know, and as the novel progresses, the reader begins to understand the plight of this cynical, attention-starved young man. (Did I mention that Jesse starts fires in his spare time? Go figure.)
Lives Turned Sideways and Upside Down
The major conflict resulting from all the stress that envelops the Fitzgerald family arises when Anna decides to seek an attorney to represent her in her bid for medical emancipation: she wants the legal right to make medical decisions which affect her body- in this case, the decision not to give her sister the kidney that Kate needs to survive. Campbell Alexander, the lawyer Anna chooses to help her secure this right, becomes another of the book’s fascinating main characters/ narrators. (The opposing attorney? Mother Sara, who had packed away her Juris Doctor when she assumed the role of Mother Advocare.) When the court also appoints a GAL (guardian ad litem) to observe Anna and act as her legal advocate, the cast of characters/narrators is complete. The fact that the GAL, Julia, just happens to be the girl Campbell Alexander jilted three days before their high school graduation twelve years ago, provides another plot line for the novel, as does the constant presence of Campbell’s service dog, Judge. Throughout the book, the reader is left to ponder why, exactly, this man needs a service dog. (When questioned multiple times as to his need for a service dog, Campbell comes up with all kinds of cynically amusing answers, none of which comes anywhere near the truth that is revealed near the end of the book.)
So much to ponder....
None of the above, of however, comes even close to covering the terrain laid out in My Sister’s Keeper; don’t expect any spoilers here. I will say, though, that the ending of this novel came as far more of a surprise than the endings of the countless books I’ve read that were billed as mysteries. Also, as I read the book, I recalled with regret this piece of advice given to me many years ago (and which I probably shared with my own students): A first person narrator is not usually the best way to go when writing fiction . Fortunately, either the author never received that particular advice, or she chose to ignore it. Recognizing the fact that many points of view color any situation ( in this case, the family of a child affliced with leukemia; in House Rules, the family of a young man who lives withAsperger’s Syndrome), she has mastered the technique of rotating first person narrators to tell the story. The success of that technique is apparent when you read My Sister’s Keeper and find yourself wanting to advocate for everyone involved in the heartbreaking tale.