Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

Cover Picoult Small Great Things

When I told a friend and former library co-worker that I liked Jodi Picoult’s books, she basically sniffed her disapproval – and our friendship was changed forever. I worked for several years  in public libraries and tried not to be judgmental of people’s reading preferences, or to let the fact that someone thought Danielle Steel wrote great literature to negatively impact my opinion of them. But really, I don’t get it. I know JP is writing for a mass market – and sometimes her resolutions might be just a bit too neat for snooty readers. But I’ll admit right up front, I am a sucker for a well-plotted story that makes me think about a social issue or two along the way.

Having said that, you might guess (correctly) that I was ecstatic to have the opportunity to read an advance copy of JP’s latest work Small Great Things in exchange for my honest review (thanks, NetGalley and Ballantine!). I deliberately didn’t read anything about it before diving in, and it’s hard to describe the impact this had on me. I really want to review it, but don’t want to spoil the story…and it is a GRIPPING story, for sure. What I really should do is just say “TRUST ME! YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK!!” but that’s not exactly how this works, so I will provide a synopsis that won’t spoil anything, then remind you again YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK.

The protagonist of this, and the individual around whom the story swirls is Ruth Jefferson, an experienced (20+ years) labor and delivery nurse at a Connecticut hospital. The story is told from multiple perspectives, and when it begins, Ruth is just beginning a routine checkup on a newborn, only to be told a few minutes later that she’s been reassigned to another patient. The baby’s parents, who acted a bit squirmy when Ruth came on shift and relieved another nurse, are white supremacists and make it clear they refuse to allow Ruth, who is African American, to touch their child. The hospital complies with their request, and (you can kind of see that something is coming) the next day, the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone in the nursery. Here is the dilemma: does she assist the baby, going against her supervisor’s direct orders, following her instinctual desire (and training)?

Ruth ends up being charged with a crime, and is represented by a public defender, Kennedy McQuarrie, who insists that even mentioning race in the courtroom is not a winning strategy. The story is incredibly timely, with the increasingly ugly rhetoric inspired by events and politicians in 2016, and Jodi Picoult uses her storytelling skills to make the reader consider issues surrounding race, prejudice, privilege and justice.

Trust me, YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK. You will thank me!  It may be unsettling, but you will enjoy the story, and it will make you think (always a good thing!) Five stars.

 

Pretending to Dance by Diane Chamberlain

pretending to dance cover

This book shares some things with another of Chamberlain’s books, in terms of a very similar protagonist ( a female who leaves the South, relocates to San Diego, etc. ) Although I had read the earlier book, I was quite eager to read this, although part of me now wishes that I had also read the short story “The Dance Begins,” which is a prequel to this book. In the book, Molly Arnette’s father is a man with serious physical limitations brought on by his MS, and we meet him in that state. He is such a warm and loving character, and such a wonderful father to Molly, I was thinking that in some ways it might have been nice to get a glimpse of him prior to him being nearly completely helpless physically. Although, not having read the story, I have no idea whether he was dancing in it or not, but clearly the characterization was adequately developed that I cared about him dancing or not!

In any case, there are two stories going on in this book: in the one, Moly lives in San Diego with her husband Aidan, and the two of them are going through the process of trying to adopt a baby, as they cannot have their own. In the other story, we see Molly as a teen, growing up on the family compound (“Morrison’s Ridge”) in North Carolina with her father, Graham, her mother Nora (who she has claimed for the twenty years since she left North Carolina following Graham’s death is dead) and assorted other family, both by blood and by choice. The family includes the fascinating character Amalia, who teaches Molly to dance, and we come to learn Amalia is actually Molly’s birth mother.

There is a mystery surrounding Graham’s death and the reasons why Molly has abandoned her roots…as the stories are woven together, various topics are addressed, including family relationships (father/daughter, mother/daughter, birth vs. adoptive parents, dying “with dignity,” and the idea of secrets among families and between spouses. We see Molly and her various family members (both blood and not) dancing together, singing together, and keeping secrets from one another.

Chamberlain has done a good job developing the characters into people we care about, and meshing the threads of the two stories together. I admit, I cared much more about the story of Molly’s childhood and Graham’s death than about Molly and Aidan’s quest for parenthood, but I appreciated both sides. I loved the way the young Molly was shown growing into a slightly more mature girl as she began to discover boys and to test the boundaries of her family rules, as she sneaks off to a rendezvous with a boy named Chris:

“He put his hand on my breast through my T-shirt. I was on my back and knew my breast was almost completely flat in that position. When I imagined being with Johnny Depp, I was always on my side exactly for that reason, but Chris didn’t seem to care.”

 As the story moved along, it reminded me in some ways of a Jodi Picoult novel, in terms of having interesting, well-developed characters whose situation revolved around and moved toward a climactic episode involving a social issue with a moral dilemma.

My expectations may have been a bit high, following my book group’s recent discussion of Chamberlain’s Necessary Lies. The result was that I was a bit disappointed after I finished this one, but as I said, that is likely due to overly high expectations on my part.

I won’t put DC into my list of favorite authors, but I did enjoy the book, and have recommended it to several people. I appreciate the opportunity to review it in exchange for my NetGalley review.