Book review: Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

Saturday, October 8, 2016 Permalink

In mid 2001 I was heading to a health retreat for three decadent weeks of pampering, healthy eating, exercise and seclusion; and was in need of some reading fodder. I stumbled across a deal involving three books by an author I’d not heard of. They all sounded good so I snapped them up. And my love of Jodi Picoult was born.

I should mention I’ve now skipped a couple of books and haven’t adored them all equally, but her early ones – in particular – I loved, so I awaited her latest with great excitement.

Book review: Small Great Things by Jodi PicoultSmall Great Things
by Jodi Picoult
Published by Allen & Unwin
on October 12th 2016
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: General Fiction, Literary Fiction
ISBN: 9781760110499
Pages: 480

'I don't want that nurse touching my baby.' Those are the instructions from the newborn child's parents. However, when the baby goes into cardiac arrest, Ruth, a nurse of twenty years' experience, sees no option but to assist. But the baby dies. And Ruth is charged with negligent homicide.

Ruth is shattered and bewildered as she tries to come to terms with her situation. She finds different kinds of support from her sister, a fiery radical, and her teenage son, but it is to Kennedy McQuarrie, a white middle-class lawyer, to whom she entrusts her case, and her future.

As the two come to develop a truer understanding of each other's lives, they begin to doubt the beliefs they each hold most dear. In order for the privileged to prosper, they come to realise, others have to suffer. Racism takes many forms, and is reinforced and underpinned by the structures of our society.

The first thing that leapt to mind as I started this book was the furore around Lionel Shriver’s recent visit to Australia and discussion around voice, characters and cultural appropriation. Should / can white authors write about people of colour…? Or vice versa I guess?

I’d been contemplating the issue as another author asked (via Twitter) how her fans would feel about her writing from the point of view of a male. I responded that I have no problem with it. Many books I read offer up multiple points of view.

And it’s true I (as an – ahem – almost middle aged white single woman) might not necessary relate to characters from other cultures but it’s also the case occasionally if the main character is a mother or wife or child. Having said that however, I think a really good author puts us in the head of their protagonists, no matter what.

But I digress…

Picoult has created two incredible leads in Ruth and Kennedy. Both very different women, but both devoted mothers and passionate about their jobs and chosen professions.

Kennedy believes she sees no colour. But she’s apologetic for her privilege without understanding what that really means.

Ruth knows her colour has impacted her life, but despite that – or because of it – she did well at school and in her career and is raising a smart and honourable son.

I don’t have a problem with white people. I live in a white community; I have white friends. I send my son to a predominantly white school. I treat them the way I want to be treated–based on their individual merits as human beings, not on their skin tone.

But then again, the white people I work with and eat lunch with and who teach my son are not overtly prejudiced. p 43

When Ruth goes on trial Kennedy cautions Ruth against raising the issue of discrimination, wanting to focus solely on her competence as a nurse; even though much of what happened was a direct result of decisions made because of Ruth’s colour.

I’ve been remiss in mentioning our other narrator – white supremacist Turk – whose child died. It’s hard to like Turk… him being ridiculously racist and close-minded ‘n’ all, but Picoult does give us some insight into how he become thus.

As an aside, Turk’s story reminded me of a South African post-apartheid documentary about two families – one black, one white – and their realisation they’d been mindlessly indoctrinated from a young age and never thought to question what they were told. Until it was too late for them.

This book is very much about Ruth, Kennedy and Turk’s evolution. Kennedy becomes conscious of her passive racism. Ruth realises she’s been avoiding confronting the issue of race; and Turk, well… he’s well and truly entrenched in his white world and surprised when confronted with his beliefs.

Ruth’s son Edison also features strongly. He’s on a scholarship at a posh school and on the precipice of college. Ruth knows he has great things before him as long as her trial and its fallout don’t drag him down.

This is a not always an easy read. It’s confronting in parts and – for me – it became a little too preachy near the end; but it offers up an interesting plot and some great characters… and is most definitely worth the hype it’s receiving.

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult is published in Australia via Allen and Unwin and available from 11 October 2016.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.


  • Kate W
    October 8, 2016

    Sounds interesting and yes, because of The Shriver Question, highly topical!

    I read a few books by Picoult a number of years ago and while I enjoyed them well enough at the time (like you, found them to be good reading fodder) I did find she followed a formula (as do many other authors) – since then, I’ve read fewer by her and only picked up ones where the topic really interests me, such as this one.

    • Debbish
      October 9, 2016

      I guess it’s good Picoult isn’t nervous about tackling controversial or sensitive issues and doesn’t shy away from grey areas Kate.

  • karen blue
    October 10, 2016

    I worried this book would be preachy. I have been a nurse for a long time and I have seen families not want this nurse or that nurse for crazy reasons. When it comes to emergencies whoever is present deals with the crisis. It happens all the time. Thanks for the review, I’ll probably skip this just because I am so sick of the race issue. Great review!

    • Debbish
      October 10, 2016

      Yes, I found it got a bit preachy at the end, but Picoult (fortunately) avoided that for much of the book. I really liked some of the characters though… particularly Kennedy (the lawyer) and Edison (Ruth’s son).

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