Sunday, 14 April 2013

80 Books No.28: Harvesting the Heart by Jodi Picoult

Blogging about these books is proving to be an interesting experience. I'm finding out whether I truly enjoyed a book or not through the process and seeing patterns in the types of books I read. And I've just found another use for this level of detail: I won't find myself errantly re-reading a Jodi Picoult novel I've already read before.

I've an odd relationship with Picoult. I've seem to have read no less than fifteen of her novels*, some of them twice. I bought the debut novel her daughter released (with her mother's help). I've even bought a pretty awful made-for-TV movie of my favourite one of her novels The Pact. Yet she also drives me insane. It frustrates me that her books are constantly re-issued with new covers making you think she's written a new one when actually it's just a repackaging of a 1995 novel (yes, okay, not technically her fault, but bear with me...). It annoys me that so many of her novels have similar titles so you're never quite sure if you've read them or not: Harvesting the Heart/Change of Heart, easily confused. It irritates me that she takes on hard-hitting issues such as teenage suicide, child abuse, domestic violence, terminal illness and high school shootings, and sentimentalises them so much. And frankly, I've never forgiven her for the terrible endings of both My Sister's Keeper and Handle with Care, endings which basically deemed the previous four hundred pages null and void (I will however give her kudos for the ending of Salem Falls which was a brilliant twist - see, I can be nice).

So, yeah, Picoult and me don't necessarily get on, yet I still keep buying her novels. This may have a very strong link to the fact that her novels appear in charity shops on a regular basis and I'm a greater lover of buying books in charity shops. This does not necessarily reflect her ability as a writer as some of my favourite books of all time have come from second-hand stores.

So, Harvesting the Heart. I'll let the publisher's blurb give you the lowdown first:
Paige has only a few vivid memories of her mother, who abandoned her when she was five. Now, having left home and her father for dreams of art school and marriage to an ambitious young doctor, Paige finds herself with a child of her own.

Emotionally and physically exhausted, overwhelmed by the demands of her family, Paige cannot forget her mother's absence or the shameful memories from her own past. Her next step would have been unthinkable before her doubts about her maternal ability crept into her mind. Is it possible Paige's baby would be better off without her?
Basically Picoult's tackling the issue of post-natal depression here, and if she'd stuck to that I might have been on board with this novel. Picoult does seem to complete some quite extensive research into the topics she covers and I reckon she could do post-natal depression pretty well. However, she isn't content with this. Instead, she decides to also cover: self-worth, the problems with marrying somebody from a different social circle to you, a random detour into horse health and ailments and a whole great dollop of Catholic guilt. Like in The Tenth Circle, the focus drifts away from what could be an interesting study to something bigger, more unwieldy and last engaging. It could have worked here, possibly, but for me it was all spoilt by the following problems.

Paige is not a likeable character. It's harsh, I've never been abandoned by my mother aged five, but the way it all keeps harping back to this incident really got me irritated. She needed to get a grip and stop blaming everybody but herself for how she felt and acted. Certain elements of her childhood also didn't ring true: her 'best friend' got her suspended from school on three occasions, and her father did nothing to stop her seeing her? She and her father seemed close and yet she just left him and barely ever phoned him? Her father himself: he seemed a bit of a drip which seemed unlikely given he'd raised Paige himself from the age of five with no help.

Perhaps Paige could have been an unlikeable character and the novel would still have worked if Nicholas, her husband, wasn't so unlikeable and one-dimensional as well. He really is horrible for ninety per cent of the novel, more interested in his career than his wife or child. Picoult broadly draws this picture of a man who doesn't understand the pressures of being a full-time parent and then re-habilitates him within pages. I can't see anybody existing exactly like him, especially not underneath the surface: he never really expresses a wish to spend more time with Paige or Max, and if this was what he was really like, I can't understand why Paige ever fell in love with him. Their courtship is stilted and weird and it's not really made clear what they see in each other, apart from their being so 'different' from each other. In the end I wished both Nicholas and Paige would abandon the baby and let him be brought up by somebody nice.

Picoult likes to experience with viewpoints and she switches here from Paige's first person narration to a third person focused upon Nicholas. This probably doesn't help with making Nicholas a fully-rounded character, but what really let the book down was the huge leaps in time. The reader jumps from their meeting and getting married to eight years in the future, where Paige seems to have been miserable forever and Nicholas seems never to have seen his wife. Do marriages like this exist? And then Picoult puts the nail in the coffin: suddenly, for no reason, there's a chapter focused upon Nicholas - back when he and Paige first met, which in part contradicts an earlier section on the same events. I had no idea why this was there, it felt misplaced and as though nobody had proof-read the final copy properly.

And then Picoult gives the reader an ambiguous ending. A messy deux es machine is shoe-horned in in order to bring a climax to the novel and what happens next is implied, but I felt the reader was owed more than this after investing so much time in these frankly unpleasant characters. What's more, the implied ending, for the reasons outlined above, made no sense.

When I'd finished, I looked at the publication date. 1992. This was only Picoult's second novel, and so my initial reaction was to consider that perhaps her writing style was still immature then and she needed more time to develop. Then I thought again, and, no, she should have been better than this, she should have been young and eager to impress. Writers with an established career might get sloppy with their writing and get away with it: look at J K Rowling. But writers at the start of their career should be better than this clumsy tome and to be honest her publishers should have called her on the messiness of this.

And yet I read it, from start to finish. If I wasn't on a tight target I'd be ashamed of myself.

I'm going to go and have one of these now in order to calm down.

* In case anybody is interested, the Picoult novels I've read are Harvesting the Heart, Picture Perfect, Mercy, The Pact, Keeping Faith, Plain Truth, Salem Falls, Perfect Match, My Sister's Keeper, Vanishing Acts, The Tenth Circle, Nineteen Minutes, Change of Heart, Handle with Care and House Rules. I've bolded the ones I would consider were worth reading if you ever wanted to.

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