Published by Ballantine Books on October 2, 2018
The warm fall day starts like any other at the Center—a women’s reproductive health services clinic—its staff offering care to anyone who passes through its doors. Then, in late morning, a desperate and distraught gunman bursts in and opens fire, taking all inside hostage.
After rushing to the scene, Hugh McElroy, a police hostage negotiator, sets up a perimeter and begins making a plan to communicate with the gunman. As his phone vibrates with incoming text messages he glances at it and, to his horror, finds out that his fifteen-year-old daughter, Wren, is inside the clinic.
But Wren is not alone. She will share the next and tensest few hours of her young life with a cast of unforgettable characters: A nurse who calms her own panic in order save the life of a wounded woman. A doctor who does his work not in spite of his faith but because of it, and who will find that faith tested as never before. A pro-life protester disguised as a patient, who now stands in the cross hairs of the same rage she herself has felt. A young woman who has come to terminate her pregnancy. And the disturbed individual himself, vowing to be heard.
OK, blogosphere. Let me tell you a thing about Jodi Picoult. I can’t tell you which book of hers I picked up first. I do know that it was in a Borders store circa 2005, and that I was 16 years old and probably way too young to grasp anything remotely as heavy as a Jodi Picoult novel, but that didn’t stop me from sucking up every book she’d ever written like it was the last breath of fresh air I’d ever take.
Since then, I’ve ritualistically preordered each and every Picoult book and read it like it was the key to my own longevity. Have they all been winners? No, but I think that’s all right – we have to take risks to get anywhere in this life, even if it falls flat. So when I heard that this year’s book, A Spark of Light, was in a different format than usual, I girded my loins and went in with a clenched jaw. I’m kind of glad I did.
How I’d Describe This Book to a Friend
A Spark of Light centers around a womens’ health clinic in the bible belt. Namely, a hostage situation where a distraught father who believes the Center to be the cause of his teenage daughter’s abortion has taken it upon himself to go in gun blazing (pun intended …) to kill those who he believes kill babies.
The standard Picoult format is multiple points of view, usually 4 or 5, and chronological. Each speaker has their own unique voice, and usually their own typeface to help really set them apart. A Spark of Light takes a risk, though, and instead of hopping from chapter to chapter based on character, it has a small handful of chapters separated by hour. Within each chapter, there are several POV narrators discussing what happens within that hour. If this isn’t enough to keep track of, add to it the fact that the book gets about 10% in and then begins to go in reverse, kind of like “Satisfied” from Hamilton.
This could still potentially work, if the characters were memorable and easy to differentiate from one another. But alas, this is the nail in A Spark of Light‘s coffin: the narrators are utterly indistinguishable from each other for the most part. There are a few standouts that are notable: Beth, the young teenage girl who is arrested and cuffed to her hospital bed for inducing a chemical abortion at home illegally, Olive, an older woman who goes to the clinic for standard OBGYN things, and Louis, the African American, Christian abortion doctor. But everyone else sort of bled together.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, it’s very hard to dredge up empathy for a character who dies early on in the book that we don’t get to really know until the book is almost over. We never find out how key, pivotal plot points end – loose ends don’t get tied up and many just seem to flat-out dangle. It reads clunky and stilted. I could not manage to feel bad for anyone or any of their choices – this book wound up being a slog for me and took almost two weeks to read, which is unheard of for me when it comes to Jodi Picoult.
I still love Picoult’s books, and I always will. This one concerns a very pivotal, timely issue in today’s society – abortion will always be hot-button – but it just fell flat for me, which is a shame. Will it stop me from preordering next year’s release? Absolutely not. But at the end of the day, this isn’t even close to the top 10 books of Picoult’s oeuvre.
“We are all drowning slowly in the tide of our opinions, oblivious that we are taking on water every time we open our mouths.”
Have you read this book, or any other by Jodi Picoult? What did you think?