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.
Told in a daring and enthralling narrative structure that counts backward through the hours of the standoff, this is a story that traces its way back to what brought each of these very different individuals to the same place on this fateful day.
Jodi Picoult—one of the most fearless writers of our time—tackles a complicated issue in this gripping and nuanced novel. How do we balance the rights of pregnant women with the rights of the unborn they carry? What does it mean to be a good parent? A Spark of Light will inspire debate, conversation . . . and, hopefully, understanding.
In A Spark of Light, Jodi Picoult presents yet another ripped-from-the-headlines scenario: At the last remaining clinic that provides abortions in the state of Mississippi, women seeking services must brave a gauntlet of protesters to get inside the doors, where they’re treated with kindness, despite the convoluted laws that dictate timing, method, and communications around care. But on the day this story unfolds, the normal tensions and emotions are disrupted by a gunman who bursts into the clinic, shooting indiscriminately and taking hostages, so blinded by his own rage that he feels no compassion for the people whose lives he’s endangering.
We see events through the eyes of multiple characters: The doctor, who flies from state to state to perform the services that give women choices; the teen seeking birth control for the first time; the older woman who trusts the clinic staff to help her understand a medical diagnosis; the woman seeking an abortion; the relative there as an escort, and more. The author has chosen an unusual approach to this story: Instead of starting at the beginning of the day and taking us through it step by step, the narrative starts at the end, at the climax of the hostage situation. From there, the story moves backward, hour by hour, so that with each chapter, we learn a little more about the people involved, the events that have already happened, and how these different people all ended up in this crisis together.
I have mixed feelings about the backwards chronology. There are plenty of “aha” moments with each chapter, as another piece of the puzzle slides into place. So THAT’s why this person came to the clinic! So THAT’s why this other character acted this way! So THAT’s how these scenarios are connected. As with all of the Picoult books I’ve read, there’s a fairly large twist toward the end that further explains things. But does this work in terms of the actual power of the story? Well, for me, not so much. Yes, it’s satisfying to see the pieces come together, yet the horrific opening scenes would have been more powerful if I’d actually felt like I knew the people involved. Instead, we start with a bunch of strangers in a terrible situation, and have to work through each chapter, each going backward by one hour, in order to get to know their backstories, their personalities, and their motivations.
At the same time, A Spark of Light does a good job of making the various sides of the reproductive rights battle comprehensible. The author does not depict anti-choice protesters as mindless fanatics. Instead, as we get to know characters from all sides of the issue, we’re given insight into why they believe what they believe. Whether we agree with a particular character’s viewpoint or not, we come out of this reading experience at least understanding why a person could feel what they do, and even more importantly, get to understand how a person’s individual experiences and struggles often play into the stance they take as adults.
To be clear, there’s a sharp distinction between belief and action, and the author in no way supports the actions of the shooter in this story. What he does is unforgivable. Still, there’s a backstory provided, to explain how a man might snap and take such extreme action. I have to say that this is where the story feels weakest to me: I don’t really buy the chain of events that led this man, in the blink of an eye, to change from family man to mass murderer.
In the author’s notes at the end of the book, the author provides some fascinating statistics about abortion law and how it’s changed, the restrictions placed on women who need care, and the ways in which choice continues to be curtailed. She also makes compelling arguments for the need for greater access to contraception and healthcare in order to reduce the need for abortions. She draws on interviews with countless medical providers, political advocates from both sides of the issues, and women who’ve contemplated or chosen termination of pregnancies, and presents a powerful portrait of what this means for the people involved.
A Spark of Light is though-provoking and absorbing. While I do feel that the backwards chronology is not effective, I still found myself caught up in the characters’ lives by the end of the book. This book has both dramatic action and interesting moral dilemmas, and is sure to be a hit with Picoult’s many fans.
Warning: In addition to the gun violence, some readers may find the graphic description of the abortion process particularly disturbing.
Title: A Spark of Light
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: October 2, 2018
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction