My Sister’s Keeper

I generally avoid reading “Mass-Market Fiction,” but was trolling through the library the other day while my daughter collected 3 days worth of reading material (8 books; she’s a fiend) and decided to give this book, by Jodi Picoult, a try. I should have been warned off by the fact that both the title and her name were written on the cover in all lower-case letters, a device better served by poetry, but it was obviously a weak moment, and here I am.

I finished this book yesterday in the bathtub. If it hadn’t been a library book I would have thrown it across the room in disgust.

There’s a good premise: the daughter of a loving couple is diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia at the age of 3. When the parents hear that finding close enough matches for donations of things like cord blood, lymphocytes, and bone marrow from the general population is nearly impossible, they decide to genetically “create” a child that will be the closest possible match and then become pregnant through in vitro. And so they do. Now this younger sister is loved by the family, and there are many beautiful family moments/memories, although the mother sees everything through the lens of keeping Kate healthy. The younger sister is never asked if she wants to go through yet another painful procedure to help her sister, unless you want to call “But of course you want to help Kate” asking.

The premise of the story is that Kate’s kidney is now failing as a result of her latest treatments, and Anna, the younger sister, has had enough. She retains a lawyer to fight for medical emancipation, and the family struggle begins. It is clear that this is a difficult decision for her, that she wants her sister to live, but at the same time she wants her own life and seems to think it’s time to claim it.

It’s a good story; there are a lot of thought-provoking scenes and arguments made, which kept me reading throughout episodes of misgiving prompted by sentences such as:

“My mother’s words hang like too-ripe fruit, and when they fall on the floor and burst, she shudders into motion.”

“I weave in and out of traffic, sewing up a scar.” (this, supposedly from a drug-using 16-year-old arsonist)

“Of all the animals in the Africa section, [zebras] have always been my favorite. I can give or take elephants; I never can find the cheetah–but the zebras captivate me. They’d be one of the few things that would fit if we were lucky enough to live in a world that’s black or white.”


In some ways, though, these are the least of the book’s problems.

First of all, the author alternates between the “voice” of each character — Dad, Mom, Kate, Anna, Jesse (arsonist older brother), Campbell (attorney), Julia (guardian ad litem appointed by the court). But the voice never changes. If you’re going to do this, you need to do it convincingly; if you can’t do it convincingly, find a different way to weave together your narrative.

[Spoiler alert — if you want to read this book, and want to be manipulated as the author intends, do not read further.]

Then there’s the attorney retained by Anna, who has a service dog, and a series of flip answers to anyone who questions it. His need for this dog is kept deliberately hidden from us so that he can have a surprise grand mal seizure at a strategic moment in court. I feel manipulated.

There’s also the fact that Campbell and Julia were mis-matched lovers in high school, until Campbell mysteriously abandoned her and Julia spent the next 15 years going to Harvard Law and healing her broken heart. Of course, Campbell is not the snake we are led to believe he was: he abandoned her because, 2 days after graduation he was in the car accident that initiated his epilepsy and didn’t think it would be fair to Julie to be a burden to her. Again, manipulated.

But the ultimate manipulation. All of the questions of family love and devotion and loyalty and sacrifice are presented, questions I imagine any of us would struggle with — what do you do as a parent to save your child? How much is enough? How much is too much? When do you let it stop? Good questions from both the parents’ standpoints as well as that of the patient herself. For 415 pages the reader is engrossed in these questions, along with: how valuable is your life, your body, your right to choose, in comparison with the life of someone you love. We find out near the end that Anna only fought for medical emancipation because Kate asked her to — Kate had had enough of the fight, enough of a life of illness and hospitals and chemo and pain. This is believable, but already a bit of a cop-out. Why not pursue the whole question, and have Anna just fight for the right to her own body?

On the 415th page, after this emancipation has been granted, Anna is killed in a car accident. It takes 3 more pages to get to the end of the book, at which point: Kate has received Anna’s kidney, and 8 years later is still surviving in the longest-running most miraculous remission ever; the clichéd delinquent older son, Jess has graduated from the police academy.

So, so manipulated.

As I was ranting to my husband about how disgusted I was with this book, I got a nosebleed. It may not have been related, but. . .

4 Responses to “My Sister’s Keeper”

  1. 1 jill
    June 10, 2010 at 6:45 pm

    Yes, I read it a couple of years ago and remember that ‘WHA?!’ moment at the end. Really?! After all that jerking around, this is the payoff?
    Just finished an Ann Lamott book. Why is she so obsessed with smells? She has some very good turns of phrase, but I can’t relate to half of what she says.
    Need some good summer reading suggestions.

  2. June 10, 2010 at 7:41 pm

    Which Ann Lamott?
    And me too — it’s bordering on desperate.

  3. 3 jill
    June 11, 2010 at 12:58 pm

    Blue Shoe. I wonder if it was one of her early ones. I’m off to ask for suggestions of FB. Then maybe a trip to Barnes and Noble.

  4. June 11, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    Yeah, I don’t like her fiction writing as well as her essay stuff. I didn’t care for that one either.

    IF you get some good suggestions, pass them on, ok?

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