Monday, October 29, 2018

Review of THE STORYTELLER by Jodi Picoult

It's highly ironic/tragic/weird that in the midst of reading novelist Picoult's modern thematic revisiting of the Holocaust and the nature of human evil that the massacre of Jewish people at the Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania occurred.

As William Faulkner wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

by Jodi Picoult

I don’t like the novel's ending at all; don’t agree with it thematically, morally, or as a fitting climatic plot conclusion. Not at all.

But then I didn’t like the very slow-stalebreadish, unbelievable beginning of the book either!

But the beginning and ending are bad for exactly opposite reasons.

The beginning is bad because Picoult’s character of the atheist Jewish baker who is guilt ridden, scarred from an accident, and selfishly insecure isn’t convincing. Seems artificial and implausible.

Even though Picoult is seeking to root the story of good and evil, right and wrong, truth and deception, guilt and forgiveness in the present by having this weak, surfacey current Jewish narrative begin her long, deep, troubling revisiting of the German-caused Holocaust, I don't think it works, at least not at the start. By the end of the novel, a reader may change his mind, but more on that later.

If I hadn’t been assigned this book for the new club I joined last month, I might have quit by page 100. Too weak of characterization, too many unconvincing plot steps, too many overly detailed long-boring descriptions of Jewish bread-making (all of which seem like Picoult going overboard on trying to show how diligently and thoroughly she studied Jewish baking in order to be accurate).

In contrast, the long horrific retelling of the 20th century horror is all too to vivid, all to real, and the book's shocking ending is too convincing, too disturbing and, too unfinishing!


I understand why Sage doesn’t forgive Joseph, and why she rejects Mary’s advice, and maybe even why she decides to kill Joseph:

1. She thinks Joseph’s massacres of Jews can’t be forgiven, and she is extremely angry at him for killing her grandmother’s best friend, and intending to kill grandmother.

2. Sage isn’t a Christian like Mary, not at all. To forgive would be to belittle, excuse, and end the horror of her grandmother’s horrific lived-story. Besides, Sage wants to keep the bitterness within her against Joseph, because it is one vital link to her grandmother that she would lose if she forgave him.

3. She deeply wants revenge and justice. If Joseph is taken by the U.S. Criminal Justice System and deported, he may get away with his life-long deception of his mass murder, since Leo has already stated that often European governments don’t execute those deported.
And she wants to personally feel and see her revenge carried out. She is closing the book, ending the horrific story now.

4. BUT why does Sage—who seems to care for Leo—lie and deceive him in the end?!
Is she reverting to her past immoral self-centered behavior?

--Is seeking to honor her grandmother’s deep wish that no one know her story since it is beyond words to describe? Leo in contrast says he is going to broadcast the whole horrific account far and wide. And Sage doesn’t want that.

--Does she have doubts about how she really feels about Leo. She says Leo said he loved her, but I don’t recall her ever saying she loves him. He loves her deeply, but maybe she, like with Adam, is only lusting with Leo?

There seem to be hints of that when she balks at his idea of her moving to D.C. to be with him instead of jumping into his arms with joy.

Also, by the downturn in the last paragraph, Picoult continues the plot and theme of unfinished story, continues the personality of Sage as a sometimes self-defeating person, avoids the happily-ever-after plot (that Picoult has been dismissive of as when she had her narrator put down Disney-ish fairy tales instead of the far more ‘grimm’ tales of the past).

And there are probably other unexplored points I’ve not yet considered.

This novel is a feast to chew the cud on, a great one not only of story-telling, but for literary reflection and analysis.

Reflective Questions:

#1 Why does Picoult have Sage get the poison from Mary’s Roman Catholic shrine garden?!!

#2 Why does Picoult bring in the whole “Jesus-loaf” spoof other than as a satire against Christianity and a way to lighten a dark novel? (When the plot step happened I was really turned off by it because it was such a parody of such real news stories, such a stark contrast with the very real Holocaust news.

#3 Why is the odd assistant baker in the store even there with such his weird talking style, in clipped haikus?

#4 Why is the store called the Our Daily Bread?
#5 Why does Sage murder Joseph with poisoned bread?

#6 Why do the blue-black petals of the monkshood “in the pale palm of Mary’s glove” after Sage cuts them look like “stigmata”?!
And all the other blood images in the narrative such as when she cuts herself to become blood sisters with Diarga?

#7 Why is Sage called Sage, especially since she is one?
And Pepper and Saffron?

#8 Why does Picoult make Sage’s fornication a situation of adultery?

#9 Why is Sage made to be so isolated, even from her sisters who don’t seem to be bad individuals?

#10 Is Joseph’s actual German name “Hartmann” a characteronym of theme and meaning?

#11 Why does the novel end with a large number of contradictory possible endings that Joseph (actually Franz) has written for her grandmother Minka’s unfinished story?

So many questions, so little time;-)

Also, I didn’t like Minka's vampire story interweaving through out the book, but then I don't like vampire stories, or any fantasy for that matter. At first I found it to be, while intriguing, often too distracting.

But now looking back I realize that besides being a strong plot step (having Sage's grandmother write a dark horror novel in the real horror of actual evil of German Concentration Camps) it does emphasize many questions as to the nature of humanity and many other themes—
1.good versus evil

2.innocence versus guilt
3.immoral versus moral

4.compassion versus cruelty versus ugliness versus isolation
7.truth versus deception and lies

8.private versus public

And, let us not forget, Picoult's powerful prose which included a few aphoristic gems.

Evaluation: A+/C

A few of the Zingers:
Sage: “If you end your story, it’s a static work of art, a finite circle. But if you don’t, it belongs to anyone’s imagination. It stays alive forever.” (page 459)
“That’s why we read fiction, isn’t it? To remind us that whatever we suffer, we’re not the only ones?” (page 220)

Leo: ”To be forgiven, the person has to be sorry. In Judaism, that’s called tesbuvah. It means ‘turning away from evil.’ It’s not a one-time deal, either. It’s a course of action. A single act of repentance is something that makes the person who committed the evil feel better, but not the person against whom evil was committed…That’s why Jews don’t just go to Confession, and say the rosary.” (page 188)

Sage: “It’s the question mark that comes with death that we can’t face, not the period.” (page 131)

Picoult's book is a deep abyss of story, horrific narrative, and philosophical reflection.

Don't miss The Storyteller.

In the Light of History, Truth, and Fiction,

Daniel Wilcox

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