My Sister's Keeper, by Jodi Picoult

>> Tuesday, November 15, 2011

TITLE: My Sister's Keeper
AUTHOR: Jodi Picoult

PAGES: 448
PUBLISHER: Washington Square Press

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Fiction

Anna is not sick, but she might as well be. By age thirteen, she has undergone countless surgeries, transfusions, and shots so that her older sister, Kate, can somehow fight the leukemia that has plagued her since childhood. The product of preimplantation genetic diagnosis, Anna was conceived as a bone marrow match for Kate - a life and a role that she has never questioned… until now.

Like most teenagers, Anna is beginning to question who she truly is. But unlike most teenagers, she has always been defined in terms of her sister - and so Anna makes a decision that for most would be unthinkable… a decision that will tear her family apart and have perhaps fatal consequences for the sister she loves. My Sister's Keeper examines what it means to be a good parent, a good sister, a good person. Is it morally correct to do whatever it takes to save a child's life… even if that means infringing upon the rights of another? Is it worth trying to discover who you really are, if that quest makes you like yourself less?
Thirteen-year-old Anna is a designer baby. The fertilised egg that would become her was carefully selected, not for blue eyes or high intelligence, but because it was a perfect match for her older sister, Kate, who was suffering from a very aggressive form of leukemia. Anna's first donation to her sister was the blood from her umbilical cord, and since then, she's given blood, bone marrow, platelets and undergone all sorts of "minor" interventions to keep her sister alive.

Now Kate's kidneys are failing, and Anna is supposed to donate one of her own to her sister. No one has asked her, just as no one has ever asked her if she was willing to donate any of the other bits and pieces harvested from her over the years. It's just assumed she will. But before that can happen, she goes to a lawyer and asks him to sue for medical emancipation from her parents.

My experience of reading My Sister's Keeper was very much like that of reading Dorothy Koomson's The Ice Cream Girls. I had quite a few objective problems with it, but the main reason for my dislike of it was that I really, really didn't want to think about the issues it presented. Issues is the right word here, this is very much an "issues" book. Unfortunately, these were issues I had an almost violent repulsion against. Picoult's characters are stuck in an extremely difficult situation, one in which there are no easy answers, and one from which they can't escape, and reading this made me feel claustrophobic. I did NOT want to think about this. Just, no. I know there are plenty of people out there who have no choice about it, who have to live with situations as hard as this one, so what kind of self-centred idiot am I? I'm just reading it, imagine having to actually live it? But still, that was my instinctive reaction to it, and if I hadn't been reading this for my book club, I wouldn't have finished. Well, actually, I wouldn't have even started it.

All that said, I'm still able to analyse the book objectively, and there were a few things that I had trouble with, and would have had trouble with even if I hadn't been resenting having to read this. First is the characters' voices. The way the book is structured is that you constantly flip between shortish sections narrated from different characters' point of view. There's each of the parents, Anna, her brother Jesse, and even Anna's lawyer, Campbell, and Julia, the woman who is appointed by the court as her guardian ad litem (her role is to recommend to the court what's in Anna's best interest). All these felt much too similar. Anna's and Jesse's felt downright off. I didn't believe them for a minute. There was this tendency that all six of them had to go into these really fake-sounding philosophical musings. I guess if it had been just one character, they wouldn't have sounded fake, but just part of the character. Having all six do exactly the same thing was too much.

I was also a bit doubtful about the relationship between Campbell and Julia. These two have a history, dating back from when they were teenagers in secondary school, when Campbell was a privileged rich boy, fascinated by scholarship student Julia, a pink-haired rebel. Things ended badly when he just suddenly blew her off. On one hand, I guess it provides some much needed hope and levity, but if a romance writer tried to pull what she did with the revelation about just why Campbell had left Julia all those years earlier, the book would have turned into a wall-banger.

Also, for all that there were moments of genuine emotion, I kept getting the feeling that Picoult was very transparently trying to manipulate her readers' feelings. The ending, especially, pissed me off. I guess I saw it as an author trying to shock her readers, rather than necessarily doing what the story needed. To me, it was a mockery of what the book was about all along, which was difficult decisions and having to live with their consequences. It also makes the twist that came a bit earlier, when we find out what really is behind Anna's actions, make absolutely no sense, because suddenly this is not an issue anymore. Sorry, this is cryptic, but I'm trying to avoid a spoiler.

MY GRADE: A C-, just because for all my dislike, it was a very readable book, and I basically tore through it.


Darlynne,  16 November 2011 at 16:41  

I only saw the movie version and have no idea how or if it deviated from the book. My sister is a huge Picoult fan, but I prefer to avoid getting sucked into overwhelming emotion-land, which I think goes to your point about feeling manipulated. I was in tears at the end of the film at the same time I felt as though I'd been dragged there. Thanks for making it clear I'm not alone in my avoidance.

Marg,  17 November 2011 at 02:15  

I totally, totally agree about the ending! It was like the author had painted herself into a corner and had to find a way out. With the ending it did have though it was almost like it had made the rest of the moral dilemma that the book presented irrelevant.

It was my first Picoult, but I haven't yet gone back to read more.

rosario001,  17 November 2011 at 06:26  

I don't think I'll go back, either. A few of the people in my book club had read a few more, and they said Picoult has a tendency to just screw up the endings!

rosario001,  17 November 2011 at 06:30  

From what I've heard, they changed the ending completely. You don't seem to be outraged by it, so it sounds like it was an improvement from the original! 

Darlynne,  17 November 2011 at 16:51  

Now I'm curious to find out what the original ending was. Will have to ask my sister.

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