Picoult's latest drama

March 5, 2008 12:21:58 PM PST
There's a certain amount of made-for-TV-movie dramatics in Jodi Picoult's novels. Some are compelling and lovely, such as "My Sister's Keeper." Others devolve too quickly into schmaltzy, somewhat ridiculous story lines that always include last-minute plot twists meant to turn the book upside down.

Picoult's latest, "Change of Heart," starts strong with the story of June Nealon, whose first husband is killed in a drunk driving wreck. Then her second husband and oldest daughter are murdered, and a handyman, Shay Bourne, is sentenced to die by lethal injection for the slayings. (It's New Hampshire first execution in almost 70 years.)

And here comes the Picoult touch: Shay Bourne's life on death row is marked by mysterious happenings that may or may not be miraculous. He quotes the Gnostic gospels but also rambles incoherently. Inmates near his cell credit him with saving the life of a contraband bird that flew in the window. Wine spontaneously spouts from toilets on the maximum-security unit.

All the while, Shay decides his true path to salvation is by donating his heart (post-execution) to Claire Nealon, the young sister and daughter of his victims. Claire suffers from a heart ailment and has been on a waiting list for a new heart.

So "Change of Heart" becomes a novel about the death penalty, forgiveness and the power of belief. The book is told in chapters from the perspectives of the victim, June; the priest, Michael; the American Civil Liberties Union attorney, Maggie; and fellow inmate, Lucius.

After his priest tells Shay that he should find salvation through Jesus, not organ donation, the death-row inmate responds: "Christ can't give Claire Nealon a heart. I don't need to find to God. I don't want catechism.

"All I want to know is whether, after I'm killed, I can save a little girl."

Shay's ACLU attorney, Maggie Bloom, tackles the case of how a man can be executed while still preserving his organs for donation. (Lethal injection stops a beating heart.) It's an intriguing situation - when else would the ACLU lobby for an inmate's execution?

But Picoult's description of Maggie turns too quickly into a bad, chick-lit cliche - the successful but lonely, funny but chubby, late 20s woman who really just wants to find a nice man. As she revels in winning an earlier case and appearing on television news, Maggie pours herself a glass of chardonnay because, "I wanted to be pleasantly buzzed before I turned on the television set, where no doubt my fifteen minutes of fame was now going to be marred by a suit with stripes that made my already plus-size butt look positively planetary."

Despite the groans and eye rolls that accompany such writing, Picoult's novel does raise intriguing questions. June Nealon puts it well:

"Would you give up your vengeance against someone you hate if it meant saving someone you love?" she wonders, after hearing of Shay's offer to give his heart to Claire.

"Would you want your dreams to come true if it meant granting your enemy's dying wish?"

Picoult's loyal fans will find "Change of Heart" true to form, an emotion-laden read with characters who are honest and complicated. New readers may find it a bit preposterous, though the question of what we believe and why never gets old.