Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Keeping Faith -- Jodi Picoult

Ahhh, back in business. It's good to have time to post again!

I just finished reading this novel, on loan to me from my friend and department chair. It's the first Jodi Picoult I've read, though not the first I've attempted -- earlier this year, my school book group (mostly consisting of 12th grade girls) voted to read My Sister's Keeper, and I just couldn't get into it, despite its surging popularity. This one grabbed me a little more and I actually stuck with it, though I kept having a strange sensation while I read: when I had the book in my hands, I felt interested in the story, but when I wasn't reading it I didn't feel compelled to pick it back up. As a result, it took me quite a while to finish it.

Keeping Faith, like Picoult's other novels, is a book about controversial, "of the moment" issues: in this case, religion and contentious divorces (in her preface, Picoult claims that this was the first book that ever got her kicked out of someone's office, a sign that she had hit on an important and worthy topic, apparently). The main character, Mariah, starts the book as a limp noodle who collapses into despair upon finding her husband in the shower with another woman. Her daughter, Faith, also witnesses the event and is traumatized as a result, refusing to speak to anyone for several days and then developing an imaginary friend to help her cope with the loss of the life she knew. However, Mariah soon begins to realize that this "imaginary friend" isn't the typical, healthy developmental stage everyone assumes it to be: Faith believes that she is talking to and spending time with God.

As the plot develops, news of Faith's mystic capabilities start to gain national attention, in part because of two "miracles" she performs. A cable television star, famous for exposing hoaxes, begins to follow the family around to expose Mariah and Faith as charlatans; Mariah's ex-husband decides to sue for custody of his daughter, claiming Mariah to be an unfit parent; and powerful religious figures from a variety of faith traditions analyze the evidence at hand to try to determine if Faith truly is some sort of modern day prophet.

Throughout all of this, Mariah begins to look more closely at her personal life and how she might have been both victim and perpetrator in the dissolution of her marriage as well as the hallucinations (or are they?) of her daughter. Some of this is done in semi-flashback form, such as Mariah remembers back to the beginning of her relationship to her husband and how she dealt with the surprise of her pregnancy. We also get a mixing of internal and external perspective on the story, as the narrative voice changes from detached 3rd person to limited omniscient 3rd person (from the perspective of the lawyers, religious figures, news media, ex-husband, grandmother, and others) as well as first person from Mariah, a device that provides an interesting vantage point but can be confusing and off-putting when it switches with no warning, as in this example: "With that assurance, Colin leaves me [first person Mariah] once again. Kenzie [3rd person limited omniscient] microwaves a box of Pizza Bites and pours a big glass of red wine before she sits down to finish writing her recommendation...If she leaves Faith in her mother's custody, she does so without knowing the whole story" (309, 2000 First Perennial Edition, bracketed comments added).

Though I suspect that this novel is fairly typical Picoult material, the biggest problem with it is that it becomes too predictable. Perhaps this is what makes her books so popular, but the "controversial issues" don't seem very controversial when she takes a very safe route in dealing with them. We never really find out what is happening with Faith and are therefore left with many questions about what Picoult wants us to think about the nature of religion and belief -- instead, it seems that she wants us to take away from it whatever we personally think is "right," which comes across as a fence-sitting strategy to win over readers rather than a brave attempt to find an answer which would really give us something to chew on.

The same problem arises with the issue of the custody battle for Faith, and this one feels even more unsatisfying. Given that she is the main character, one would expect that Mariah would retain at least some parental rights -- but we are shown time and again all of the ways in which Mariah isn't a very fit mother. Are we supposed to side with her simply because her husband cheated on her, or because she is weak and emotional, or because she's the mother and therefore must have a right to her child, or because she's the protagonist? These questions are never really addressed, and so the ending doesn't feel as satisfying or as provocative as it could had Picoult been brave enough to do something new and real here.

Picoult's writing is fluid and even elegant at times, and the story is easy and enjoyable enough, but the book simply doesn't leave a lasting impression, which is a disappointment given the possibilities contained in the subject matter.

Final verdict: **1/2

1 comment:

  1. Yes,

    All these are nice, but ordinary and predictable, indeed. I am more interested in the esoteric battle of the good and evil half (widely seen in Stephen King's stories), as well as in the impact evil has in our lives. A very interesting novel recently published deals with exactly that in a very strong way, and - what can I say - the faustian stories will be intriguing to mankind till the end of days. I't called "A Diary of Wasted Years" by Chris Kape, and it's published by Eloquent Books. Check it out. At least, I liked it...