Jodi Picoult’s New Novel Sparks Self-Examination

Jodi Picoult's "A Spark of Light"Like nearly all of the Jodi Picoult books I have read, her latest, A Spark of Light, engaged me with its story and characters. And as in her more recent novels that have tackled contemporary controversial subjects, this one compelled me to consider my own beliefs long after I finished reading.

The New Hampshire-based bestselling author, who has published 24 novels since 1992, often tells her stories from multiple viewpoints, with a different character voicing each chapter. The technique enables her to illustrate various perspectives of a particular fraught situation and call attention to the spheres of moral ambiguity.

Here, an enraged gunman bursts into the only abortion clinic in Mississippi, killing the owner and wounding two others. The rest of the people who happen to be there that morning become his hostages. Among them are Wren, the 15-year-old daughter of Hugh McElroy, coincidentally the on-the-scene police hostage negotiator, as well as Wren’s aunt, two patients and a pro-life protestor disguised as a patient, and the center’s committed staffers, a doctor and a nurse.

Via a somewhat unusual technique—telling the story by counting backward through the hours of the incident—each character recounts the event from his or her point of view, concomitantly revealing the personal backstory that informs it.

I felt a bit taunted by the structure, wanting answers and greater clarity before the author was prepared to deliver them. On some occasions, I admit to being so frustrated I had to set the book down for a while. Still, I acknowledge it is possible these pauses allowed me time to reflect. The plot—who will die and who will survive—keeps the reader on edge, and there are a couple of surprises that are not revealed until the final pages. I suspected one early on, the other not at all.

While the most obvious issue the book deals with is abortion—how to balance the rights of pregnant women with the rights of the embryo or fetus they carry—other serious matters are addressed as well, among them, the nuances of the parent-child relationship and gun violence—in essence, the sharp divides between left and right, urban and rural, that threaten our democracy.

On choice vs. right to life, the narratives of several characters point out inaccuracies in the positions of the anti-choice protestors who are always outside the clinic with their signs (for their safety, patients are routinely escorted past them), but the stories of the pro-lifer hostage and the gunman provide respectful counterpoint.

Within the narrative, Picoult offers some pithy observations on the issues. On guns, she writes, “This was indeed some crazy world, where the waiting period to get an abortion was longer than the waiting period to get a gun.”

On our strong opinions, which may be informed by past experiences such as childhood, education, religion and age, she notes, “We are all drowning slowly in the tide of our opinions, oblivious that we are taking on water every time we open our mouths.”

After reading this book, some readers are likely to hold steadfast to their beliefs, some may be persuaded by a compelling argument that sparks change and still others may waver in a kind of middleground hypocrisy.

And finally, Picoult opines about the fragile nature of modern life: “That was the thing about feeling like life was good. Even when it was—especially when it was—you knew you had something to lose.”

If you like this book, some of Picoult’s other novels are also well worth reading. Check out My Sister’s Keeper (2004),
Nineteen Minutes (2007), House Rules (2010), The Storyteller (2013), Leaving Time (2014) and Small Great Things (2016).