I used to love Jodi Picoult’s books. Some felt a bit obvious or preachy, or perhaps overly spiritual but they were full of emotion yet subtly poignant. However… after some time they became a bit sameish and it felt like I was reading the same story, with different players and themes in a different setting.
Having said that I very much appreciated some of the themes she’s tackled in a nuanced way recently, such as racism in Small Great Things and women’s reproductive rights in A Spark of Light. I felt like her last book, The Book of Two Ways, was a bit of a departure and I’m afraid I put it aside, the detail of Egyptian history and language being too much for me.
Her latest, Wish You Were Here, is a difficult read to describe. You think it’s going to be one thing. But then it’s not. And for a while I really liked where it was heading. But then there’s a change of direction again. It was obviously an important book to her however and Picoult has written a note in the back describing why she felt impassioned to write it.Wish You Were Here
by Jodi Picoult
Published by Allen & Unwin
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: General Fiction, Women's Fiction
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 - days before her thirtieth birthday. Right on time.
But now she is stranded, alone on what was planned to be a romantic idyll with Finn. Unfortunately, Finn is trapped thousands of miles away, and Diana is on one of the world's most beautiful islands with no food, no luggage, and no place to stay, forced to test her personal limits to survive.
Struggling to find her feet, Diana gradually connects with a local family when a teenager with a secret opens up to her. As Diana helps her fight her demons she learns more about herself, and about the islands of Galapagos, where Darwin developed his theory of evolution. The dramatic and sometimes dangerous terrain reflects Diana's own experiences, her new relationships and growing awareness that she too is evolving into someone quite different.
In places this book is again dense with detail. And about some very disparate topics. The Galapagos Islands and its history and wildlife. The artworld, including restoration and the classics. About Covid, its impacts and side effects. And finally the way the mind processes memories and what we hold onto from the past.
The book opens with us getting to know Diana and her life with Sotheby’s sourcing artwork for auction. She’s on the precipice of a life-changing deal in March 2020 when Covid first rears its ugly head.
She’s about to go to the Galapagos Islands with her surgery-registrar partner Finn, when he’s told his leave as been cancelled. He urges her however, to go without him.
Puerto Villamil closes when Diana arrives and suddenly she’s without food and accommodation. The blurb made me think she was in some danger, but really she’s just in a strange place, with no language and everything is closed. She’s taken in by an old woman, befriends a teenager and clashes with a local who dislikes tourists. She’s stuck longer than expected on the island and unable to contact Finn though receives intermittent emails from him – fraught with Covid-related news about New York and its residents.
It’s obvious from the blurb that Diana has a revelation of sorts while away from her life – the life she’s meticulously mapped out and thinks she’s wanted from a young age – but we all know that it takes a crisis for us to re-evaluate what we think is important.
And then there’s a turning point that I didn’t see coming. Though I’d be surprised if anyone does.
The book is set in the present though includes snippets and memories of Diana’s past. She was close to her art restorer father, while her mother (a famous photographer) was predominantly absent from Diana’s childhood. They’ve never been close but recently Diana’s had to arrange care for her mother who has early onset Alzheimers.
In the note to readers, Picoult talks about churning this out quickly during 2020. Picoult’s obviously done significant amounts of research into Covid and its treatment, and is intrigued by the experiences of Covid patients who’ve survived – particularly those on ventilators as well as the aftermath of their experience and their recovery.
In many ways for me this book cycled through a number of stages: initially focussing on Diana and her backstory and the life she’s planned; to some commentary about Covid and its impact – not just on our characters, but on society; before circling back to Diana again.
Weirdly as I’m writing this I’ve upgraded it from a 3.5 star read to a 4 star read. It was certainly a 4 star read for most of this book but I wasn’t too sure about the direction it took towards the end. Perhaps – in retrospect – I was being a bit judgemental, so I’ll chastise myself for that and bump the score up again.
Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult was published in Australia by Allen & Unwin and is now available.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.