Book Review: A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult

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. 

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The details:

Title: A Spark of Light
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: October 2, 2018
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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Book Review: Red Clocks


In this ferociously imaginative novel, abortion is once again illegal in America, in-vitro fertilization is banned, and the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty, and property to every embryo. In a small Oregon fishing town, five very different women navigate these new barriers alongside age-old questions surrounding motherhood, identity, and freedom.

Ro, a single high-school teacher, is trying to have a baby on her own, while also writing a biography of Eivør, a little-known 19th-century female polar explorer. Susan is a frustrated mother of two, trapped in a crumbling marriage. Mattie is the adopted daughter of doting parents and one of Ro’s best students, who finds herself pregnant with nowhere to turn. And Gin is the gifted, forest-dwelling homeopath, or “mender,” who brings all their fates together when she’s arrested and put on trial in a frenzied modern-day witch hunt.

This book is getting a ton of buzz, with non-stop comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale, among others. But I’ll tell you up front, I just don’t see it, and feel like the hype is pretty undeserved too.

Also, just to get this out of the way, the synopsis is misleading as well — the book is not about “five very different women” “in a small Oregon fishing town” — it’s about four women, and there are notes from one character’s unfinished biography of a female explorer. But Eivor is certainly not a woman in the small Oregon town. Nitpicky, I know, but accuracy matters.

Okay, so what’s it all about? Through chapters alternating between the four main characters and the notes on Eivor, we get a view of life in an America much like our own, but with a scary difference. Since the Personhood Amendment became the law of the land, abortions are illegal, and by law, life starts at conception, conveying the rights of full humans on embryos. Women who miscarry are forced to pay for funerals for their dead babies. Getting an abortion will result in murder charges. Canada has enacted an agreement to close the border to women seeking abortions; this is known as the “Pink Wall”.

And yet, in all other ways, it’s just a small town with the usual assortment of odd characters overly involved in one another’s lives.

Ro is desperate to become pregnant, but as the clock seems to be running out on her fertility chances, she’s also aware of the law about to take effect (Every Child Needs Two) that bans adoption by single parents. Ro’s student Mattie is bright and ambitious, but finds herself trapped by an unwanted pregnancy. Susan feels trapped in her marriage and family life, and seems not quite stable in a self-destructive way. Gin is a healer with a talent for herbal medicine and the courage to provide care for women with nowhere to turn. All, in different ways, feel trapped by their own circumstances and the laws that take away their choices.

Oddly, Red Clocks is much less compelling than it should be. Yes, the twist about the Personhood Amendment and the return to a world of back-alley abortions is frightening, clearly intended as a cautionary tale for those who take rights for granted and who assume someone will do something about the slow creep of rising conservatism. But in execution, the events of the novel feel narrow in scope — the small town, rather than feeling representative, is just its own odd little locale.

The writing in Red Clocks suffers from literary affectation that’s distracting and even laughable in places. The main characters are referred to only by their generic descriptions in their own chapters — so in Ro’s chapters, she’s referred to only as “the biographer”. Susan is “the wife”, Mattie is “the daughter”, and Gin is “the mender”. Yet they get names when they feature in chapters about the other characters… so what’s the point of not using their names? Are they supposed to be iconic in some way? Perhaps it’s the author’s way of showing the roles that women are assigned, but it doesn’t feel necessary or effective; rather, it feels like someone trying too hard to be different.

And oh, the writing itself drove me a bit batty. Are we supposed to be seeing how these women think? Is that why everything is so disjointed? And yet, the chapters all sound kind of alike, without distinct voices. Here are a few samples — judge for yourself if this is the kind of thing you can stomach:

Labiaplasty surgeons earn up to $250,000 per month.

A little animal — possum? porcupine? tries to cross the cliff road.

Sooty, burnt, charred to rubber.

Shivering, trying to cross.

Already so dead.

(opening lines of a “The Wife” chapter)

A witch who says no to her lover and no to the law must be suffocated in a cell of the hive. She who says no to her lover and no to the law shall bleed salt from the face. Two eyes of salt in the face of a witch who says no to her lover and no to the law shall be seen by policeman who come to the cabin.

(“The Mender”)

There is an egg bracing to burst out of its sac into the wet fallopian warmth.

(“The Biographer”)

Babies once were abstractions. They were Maybe I do, but now now. The biographer used to sneer at talk of biological deadlines, believing the topic of baby craziness to be crap for lifestyle magazines. Women who worried about ticking clocks were the same women who traded salmon-loaf recipes and asked their husbands to clean the gutters. She was not and never would be one of them.

Then, suddenly, she was one of them. Not the gutters, but the clock.

(“The Biographer”)

After Clementine leaves, the mender misses her, wants back the soft white thighs. She likes her ladies big-sirenic, mermaids of land, pressing and twisting in fleshful bodies.

(“The Mender”)

Red Clocks isn’t boring, and the plot does include dramatic and moving moments — but few and far between. Otherwise, it’s all very introspective, and the political and social impact gets drowned under the droning of the inner monologues. The book held my interest, but wasn’t the buzz-worthy read I’d expected.

And a final note: I keep seeing people describe Red Clocks as “dystopian”, but I find that not quite accurate either. While it’s disturbing to see the impact of the Personhood Amendment, the world of Red Clocks is no where near the societal upheaval and tyranny of a dystopian society. It’s our world as it could be, which is scary enough without the “dystopian” label attached to it.

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The details:

Title: Red Clocks
Author: Leni Zumas
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: January 16, 2018
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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