The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult
Published by Ballantine
Publication date: September 22, 2020
Genres: Chick Lit, Fiction, Historical
Jodi Picoult’s new novel, The Book of Two Ways, straddles the worlds of death and life choices, both in the present, and in the case of death, all the way back to ancient Egypt. Dawn is a woman fifteen years into a marriage when she decides she wants to know what might have happened in the life she had as a graduate student. Unlike other alternate lives novels (Life After Life) Picoult doesn’t rely on the magical or science fiction as the impetus for Dawn’s questions. Instead, she survives a plane crash—which occurs at the beginning of the novel, but at an unknown point in the timeline—to explore the existential question “What if?”
Dawn was in Egypt, studying the funerary texts found in the coffins of the pharaohs, when she was called back home due to her mother’s terminal illness. She left behind a British archeologist with the same focus as hers and with whom she was falling in love. During her hospice vigil Dawn met Brian, a young man visiting his grandmother. The women’s illnesses created a bond between them. After her mother’s death, Dawn is left responsible for her teenage brother. Returning to Egypt is not possible, but love and marriage to Brian is.
Picoult is a pro at guiding the reader. Her books are seldom confusing and The Book of Two Ways is no different. Chapters are neatly divided between what was, as it unfolds in Egypt on a dig where exciting discoveries aiding her research occur, and in the recent past in Boston where she lives with Brian and their daughter and works as a death doula. A form of caregiver, a death doula is hired to provide the same kind of support a birth doula provides, only for the dying. In this way, Dawn is able to live out a version of her academic fascination with how the dying are guided from one life to the next. Her experience in this role is deeply touching.
Unfortunately, what was a multi-layered story about the passage of death in ancient times and modern and a reflection on the paths we take in our own lives, devolved into a romance novel about one woman wanting it all. If you’re a die-hard Picoult fan or in the mood for the sugary tones of love always always always working out for everyone, then The Book of Two Ways could prove satisfying reading. For me, it took an intriguing look at another culture’s intricate beliefs about the afterlife and upended them into a superficial mashup of ‘I still have a crush on the hot guy I met in my 20s’ lust and ‘I had to give up my dreams for family obligations’ resentment. I’m not saying the latter lightly because I have read lots of outstanding fiction about an older sibling having to discard a much worked for future, but this isn’t it. Again, if you’re looking for fairytale reading, that’s fine and The Book of Two Ways may be entertainment perfection, but by the time I finished I was furious. The novel felt like a bait-and-switch. I went in expecting nuance and got Danielle Steele.
Jodi Picoult reading I loved: Small Great Things, A Spark of Light, Leaving Time
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