Book Review: Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult

Title: Wish You Were Here
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: November 30, 2021
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author comes a deeply moving novel about the resilience of the human spirit in a moment of crisis.

Diana O’Toole is perfectly on track. She will be married by thirty, done having kids by thirty-five, and move out to the New York City suburbs, all while climbing the professional ladder in the cutthroat art auction world. She’s not engaged just yet, but she knows her boyfriend, Finn, a surgical resident, is about to propose on their romantic getaway to the Galápagos—days before her thirtieth birthday. Right on time.

But then a virus that felt worlds away has appeared in the city, and on the eve of their departure, Finn breaks the news: It’s all hands on deck at the hospital. He has to stay behind. You should still go, he assures her, since it would be a shame for all of their nonrefundable trip to go to waste. And so, reluctantly, she goes.

Almost immediately, Diana’s dream vacation goes awry. The whole island is now under quarantine, and she is stranded until the borders reopen. Completely isolated, she must venture beyond her comfort zone. Slowly, she carves out a connection with a local family when a teenager with a secret opens up to Diana, despite her father’s suspicion of outsiders.

Diana finds herself examining her relationships, her choices, and herself—and wondering if when she goes home, she too will have evolved into someone completely different.

How you feel about Wish You Were Here will be almost completely dependent on whether you feel ready for a deep-dive into living through the early months of the COVID pandemic via fiction. For me, my overriding response was — it’s too soon. And I suspect many readers will feel this way as well.

In Wish You Were Here, Diana has a career on the cusp of a huge success, a wonderful boyfriend, and a life carefully planned out. Then COVID happens. Diana and her boyfriend Finn had a dream vacation to the Galapagos planned for March 2020, when the book opens. But Finn, a resident at a New York hospital, has his time off cancelled as the virus begins to escalate and New York moves into crisis mode. Since the vacation was already paid for, Finn insists that Diana go anyway, and she agrees.

As Diana arrives at her destination, she’s moving against the flow. Tourists are scrambling to get the last ferry back as the island Diana is heading toward closes down. Still, she’s there already, with a prepaid hotel reservation. Might as well keep going! When she arrives, though, even the hotel has closed, the town seems to be shut down, and Diana — without her luggage, with minimal cash, and no knowledge of Spanish — is stranded.

But as time passes, with only spotty cell reception and inconsistent access to Wi-fi, Diana finds refuge with a local woman and her family, a troubled teen girl and the girl’s father Gabriel, a former tour guide. As this family takes Diana under their wing, she finds connection with them, and grows to love her time on the island, even as she becomes increasingly disturbed by her inability to contact Finn, only occasionally getting email downloads that include his frantic, troubled descriptions of working day and night in the heart of a crisis.

This book is… a lot. Finn’s emails are just too real — I had family members working in New York hospitals in the thick of things last year, and re-experiencing the description of the crisis via fiction is difficult and unpleasant. Not to say that Jodi Picoult is any less than the terrific storyteller she always is — just that there’s way too much realism in this book to make it work as an escape of any sort.

I enjoyed the descriptions of life in the Galapagos, although I marveled at Diana’s incredibly poor decision-making, especially deciding to go forward with staying on the island while every other tourist with sense was leaving. She was fortunate to find people willing to help her, and I couldn’t help but doubt that in real life, things would have gone as smoothly as they did.

There is a twist, and it’s a BIG one, at about 60%… and I don’t know why I was so surprised. I mean, I HAVE read Jodi Picoult books before. I should have remembered that there’s always a twist. I didn’t see this one coming, and it’s a doozy… and I won’t say anything further about it or talk about the rest of the book, because I think it’s worth reading this book in as unspoiled a state as possible. (That said, I imagine that many reviews will spoil the twist up front, so I recommend avoiding those or proceeding with caution.)

Wish You Were Here is in many ways a rumination on finding joy in life, in being present, and about learning and reconnecting with what truly matters. In the heart of a pandemic, in a time with fear running rampant and isolation a key factor of life, it’s connections and purpose and love that matter, not the next meeting or work project or purchase. All this is encapsulated in Diana’s experiences, and while none of her revelations are earth-shatteringly new, they’re still presented in a way that feels affirming and hopeful.

As I said, for me, Wish You Were Here was too current to make for an enjoyable reading experience. The details on experiencing COVID, from the perspectives of health care workers and survivors and families of people who lost their lives, feel ripped from the headlines — and that, I think, is where I struggled with this book. I’ve spent the past year and half reading the newspapers and watching coverage and being inundated with COVID discussions; reading fiction with the same subject is not at all relaxing.

Maybe if this book were to be handed to me in five years, I might feel differently. As of now, despite the book being highly readable and the fact that I was interested in the characters and how their lives would turn out, I can’t say that I’m glad to have read it. Mostly, it felt like a return to a recent bad dream, and I struggled at times to stick with it — not because it’s not well-written (it most assuredly is), but because I’m just not ready to receive COVID stories as entertainment, no matter how seriously it’s presented or how good the intentions.

As I wrote at the start, I think for each reader, it’ll come down to a question of whether it’s too soon to read a COVID novel. For me, it was. Your mileage may vary.