by Jodi Picoult
Jodi Picoult is the queen of domestica--domestic fiction. Her stories are of wives (mainly) and families (generally) with problems mixed with a controversial issue to to turn people on each other. Lawyers are always somewhere involved.
In the case of her latest novel, Sing You Home, the housewife is named Zoe, the controversial issue is "the gays," and yes, there is a court case, and yes the two sides are somehow related--in this case, they're former lovers.
For nearly a decade, Zoe and Max Baxter have been trying to conceive children. After failing the natural way as well as in-vitro procedures (which ends in a miscarriage), the two decide to divorce and live their own lives. Zoe immerses herself in her professions as a music therapist, Max regresses into his alcohol addiction. Zoe finds a case at a high school and falls in love with a female guidance counselor. Max gets into a car crash and becomes a born again Christian. It is once they've settled on their newly paved paths that problems begin. Always a family woman, Zoe returns to her clinic to in hopes of using frozen embryos (a product of her last marriage) to start a new family with her newly found wife while her ex-husband objects--it's part of him too.
As the story develops we not only see ex-lover battling ex-lover, but also the church battling state, conservatives battling liberals.
Picoult loves to investigate the controversies and the issues of our time and has even compared herself to Dickens. She uses her work to as a debate, to see both sides, though the sides are rarely fully explored. Indeed, Picoult has an agenda in this particular book. When asked if she could choose one message for readers of this book, she writes: "That gay people are not some nameless, faceless group....I hope that one day we will look back and feel embarrassed by how long it took to change the system." A loving mother of a gay son, Picoult has every right to write this book, and her heart is in the right place.
Yet, as a novel of morality it eventually borders on the didactic. Picoult does not shy away from telling us gay parents are no different from straight parents, that studies show that same-sex parents are often quite good for the character of children. As one character rattles off:
"...[T]here are certain bonuses tha come with being raised by two mommies or two daddies: compassion, for one. Plus, girls play and dress in ways that break gender stereotypes, and boys tend to be more affectionate, more nurturing, and less promiscuous. And probably because they've dealt with questions all their lives, kids raised by gay parents are better at adjusting in general."The novel is sprinkled with little tidbits like this from both sides. Yet try as she might, the novel cannot easily be balanced. As a progressive, to give the anti-gay argument any credit would give their agenda a grain of plausibility, and despite developing even likable characters on the conservative-side of the argument (Max's sister in law Liddy is a perfect example), everyone nearly becomes a caricature--from the preacher who is hell-bent on destroying the lesbians to the lawyer he hires who talks as smooth as a Bible salesman, who wears flashy suits and carries a bible with him for appearance.
Furthermore, Picoult's argument in the novel is dependent on the normalizing of gayness, instead of queering it. "I'm not a softball coach or a bike chick," says Vanessa, Zoe's wife, to prove that's she's normal. By saying so, Picoult breaks stereotypes, yet at the same time opens another argument: should gays be accepted because they are the same, or because they are different. Unlikely, Picoult's picture of a queer person is middle class, most likely white, and nonthreatening, not the anarchist trans-girl at #OWS, not the flamboyant gay guy. In that sense, Picoult is quite conservative, her book does nothing for queers.
Yet Picoult has a large following, is a New York Times best-selling author (despite NYTimes not being friendly to her), and thus her work sheds light on issues like this to all those housewives who pick up her book. In that sense, Sing You Home is a necessary book--however weak it might be: its clumsy prose, its lack of subtext (nearly everything is spelled out for the reader: gay = good, religion might be bad), its lazy use of differing fonts to tell readers who's speaking (a hallmark of Picoult's book), overnight toss-and-turns of the plot that are nearly unbelievable, and long and daunting, nearly endless court scenes. All this does not balance out moments of beauty where Picoult's words truly shine: "All the stars fall out of the sky and rain on the roof of my car. It feels like a sword between my ribs, the loss of these children..." says Zoe. Picoult could be devastating, but beautiful, yet these parts are too far in between and are likely to get lost.
Picoult focuses on issues too much and forgets that all we ever needed was the beauty of language to help us create change.