Sunday, April 3, 2011

SING YOU HOME

Review of SING YOU HOME by JODI PICOULT
(review based on an advance reading copy)

As ever, Picoult's writing is strong. You know the writing is strong when it turns invisible: when you don't need to re-read sentences, when you don't pause over awkward phrases, when every word, sentence, paragraph, and chapter flows beautifully into the next. Sadly, though, I was still disappointed with this book. I've read three of Picoult's novels: THE PACT, MY SISTER'S KEEPER, and NINETEEN MINUTES, and adored them all, but SING YOU HOME deviated from what I usually love about Picoult's work.

Let me start by specifying what I enjoyed so much about the three other books. First, Picoult’s novels force me feel with a passion that few stories can stir in me anymore. I usually find myself sobbing at least once while reading one her books, and I feel everything the characters feel: shock, anguish, betrayal, failure, confusion, and the list goes on. I even find I need a long break before I dare delve into another of her stories, since I now consider reading one of them a kind of emotional commitment. Second, there is no clear "bad guy." Picoult does a brilliant job of making you see the issue from all sides, and of mining from controversial gray areas where there is no clear right or wrong and morality is murky at best. With her past books, I could understand everyone's viewpoint and saw the conflict as a clash of opposing but equally justifiable wills. Try as I might, I couldn't pick a side and stay there for very long.

The story in SING YOU HOME might have started too early and ended too early. The plot didn't catch my attention until over halfway through, and then, when I finally felt hooked, the book ended, leaving many unresolved plot threads. I never became invested in the emotional struggles of the characters, mostly because they seemed like just that: characters, not real people. SING YOU HOME tackles big issues of human identity, and yet most serious emotions are glazed over rather than directly addressed. Both Max and Zoe go through an extreme metamorphosis with an almost non-existent transitional period. In each case, I could follow the justification behind why these changes occurred, but both still felt too sudden, more like plot devices than permanent shifts that would really strike a person in a single instant. I also find it odd that a character who never doubted herself as straight could become involved with another woman without any introspection about her sexuality. There is no correct answer for how she should feel, but I wanted her to feel something.

Unlike the previous books I read by Picoult, the issues presented in SING YOU HOME did seem cut and dry to me. I always knew whose "side" I was on, and I never felt torn or uncertain. This book comes from an author who usually (based on the three books I've read) writes about gray area questions of ethics and morality. (That may not be her intention, but it was my impression.) I'm upset that gay rights is now going to stand on the shelf next to her other books about uncertain right and wrong. I can't say whether Picoult intended for the reader to see things from both viewpoints, but I found it impossible to relate to the conservative side, since they were so extremist. In the other Picoult books I've read, each character's viewpoint is treated with equal sensitivity, but in SING YOU HOME, both sides walked too close to stereotypical portraits. Picoult probably anticipates some backlash for how she portrays Christians, as judgmental and prejudiced people who twist love into hate. The problem, however, isn't with the characters present, but the ones who are missing. There are plenty of Christians who strongly oppose gay marriage and who say phrases like those you will read in SING YOU HOME, so I am not claiming that these characters are unrealistic. However, the book lacks a single Christian character who feels differently. Where are the Christians who support gay marriage? Where are those who dislike it, but won't shove their beliefs on other people? Where are those who are uncertain? This book feels a little more like a didactic lesson for the "other side" rather than a fair portrait of the true scope of mentalities about gay rights. The gay community receives better treatment here than the Christian one, but still a few things left me unsettled. There's something a little odd about the words "acceptance" and "tolerance," because they imply that there is something that needs to be "accepted" and "tolerated." Really a group isn't truly "accepted" until we abandon that word, until we cease to stare and gasp, until a book about a gay couple has no shock factor. (On a side note, I want to see more gay characters in books that aren't about their gay identity, but about another part of their life journey as a human being.) An issue with SING YOU HOME, though I might be reading too much into this, is that the book revolves around a gay woman "turning" a straight woman, which I fear only reinforces one of homophobes' biggest fears, that the gay community is a cult trying to recruit us all. This might be lessened if either woman had a single prominent, non-sexual friendship with another woman, but they don't.

As mentioned, the book drops off rather suddenly. The plot thread about depressed and suicidal teenager Lucy remains entirely unresolved. Her story felt more real than any other in the book and was the only one I truly cared about. Needless to say, I was disappointed when it appeared that Lucy doesn't qualify as important enough for us to find out what happened to her.

SING YOU HOME includes a CD with songs written specifically for the novel. It's a brilliant idea. However, I felt a disconnect with the CD and the book - with two notable exceptions. I loved ORDINARY LIFE. Beautiful. That song is absolutely perfect for the story, and universal in general, a gorgeous song both in and out of the context of the novel. Still, my favorite was, no contest, THE MERMAID, which sings of Lucy's struggle. This was the only song that I could actually imagine Zoe singing, and one that I want to listen to over and over again, because it's so powerful.

As a stylistic choice for the book, Max, Zoe, and Vanessa's chapters are each written in different fonts. This drives me crazy (in any book), since the implication is that the reader is too stupid to distinguish different characters' voices unless the difference is highlighted with varying fonts. The voice should differentiate itself.

I've been rather hard on Picoult here, so I do want to add that everything else I've read by her is phenomenal. Even though I didn't enjoy SING YOU HOME as much, the actual writing is as strong as ever, and I wouldn’t have reviewed the book at all if I didn’t consider it worth reading.

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