Thursday, May 13, 2010

Analyzing My Sister's Keeper, by Jodi Picoult

Though the main character in My Sister’s Keeper is a 13-year-old girl, this is not a young adult book. Jodi Picoult has a reputation for crossing genres, but if I had to take a guess, I’d put it in mainstream literary. Anna’s older sister has been fighting leukemia since age 2. Anna was conceived as a bone-marrow match for her sister. Her whole life she has been donating blood and marrow to keep her sister alive. Now at 13, she rebels – hiring a lawyer to “sue her parents for the rights to her own body.”

This isn’t a book review; it’s me analyzing the writing to try to figure out what makes this book such a fascinating read.

First of all, what’s the hook? It starts with a prologue, which I’m often tempted to skip over – let me get started with the story, please! Prologues are like teasers – worse than teasers, because they don’t usually have much substance – just hints.

There’s no hints in this prologue, however. The first line:

In my first memory, I’m three years old and I am trying to kill my sister.

In two short paragraphs, the prologue sets both the tone and the basic premise of the story: you know it’s about a girl who is so overshadowed by her sister that she still dreams about killing her.

What I learned from the first chapter: in the first few paragraphs you can get away with the character telling (breaking the rule “show don’t tell”) about a situation, if the writing has strong voice (e.g. the character is a good story teller), and if the story she’s telling is quirky enough, and funny enough. She starts out by telling us:

After Anna goes on to tell us why her parents had her made – as an allogenic donor for her sister – it’s not until the second page that you actually see something happen instead of just hearing Anna’s telling. Now she’s in a pawn shop, selling a precious locket for a measly twenty dollars. After this short scene in the pawn shop, Anna’s back into “telling mode” to fill us in about more of the details of the strange household she lives in, where “we practically set a place for Death at the dinner table.” It’s strong writing and powerful details/images like this that make the “telling” work.

The next two important characters, Anna’s mother and her sister, are introduced. We meet Anna’s mom this way:

I noticed the interesting use of words like “parachuted” and “fine collarbones” in the description of her mother. That, along with the quirky habit of ordering fancy dresses without having an occasions to wear them at, make this a memorable first meeting with this character.

Meeting Anna’s sister, the one with leukemia, is just as memorable.

If it was anybody but a girl slowly dying of leukemia, you’d take her for a shallow girl suckered in by soap-operas. But when you realize that she’s so sick she can’t really do much else besides watch TV, this sobbing drama scene is a great introduction to Anna’s sister.

Next we meet Anna’s older brother. Won’t go into all the details about him, but by this time, you can expect the author to find some dramatic way of introducing this character, and she doesn’t fail to deliver. He’s got a homemade moonshine whiskey still in his room over the garage, made out of a Crockpot and some copper tubing. In one little sentence, we immediately know a lot about this guy.

You don’t get to meet Anna’s Dad for a while, but in the meantime you do get to meet her lawyer. Here’s the fun part about the lawyer. He goes everywhere with a dog and warns everyone not to pet him because he’s a service dog. But he’s not blind. So Anna asks him, “What’s the matter with you?” “I have an iron lung,” Campbell Alexander says curtly, “and the dog keeps me from getting too close to magnets.”

He doesn’t want to admit to anyone what his disability is, so he makes up these smart-ass explanations. This device serves two purposes: we are left waiting, until the climax almost at the end of book, to find exactly what disability the lawyer has that he’s so self-conscious about. And in the meantime we are treated to half dozen humorous episodes where he offers different explanations to people for his needing a service dog:

A waiter at a restaurant: “What’s the dog for?” The lawyer says: “I have SARS, and he’s tallying the people I infect.”

Another one: “I’m nearsighted. He helps me read the road signs.”

One unusual thing about this book. Not sure if I’ve ever read a book with so many first-person point of view switches. Each chapter switches POV, and many times it also switches time – going back to when Kate was first diagnosed, for instance, from her mother’s POV. It switches from Anna, then to Campbell (the lawyer), then to Sara (Anna’s mother), then to her father, back to Anna, back to her lawyer, then her older brother, back to Sara, then a new POV: Julia, Anna’s court-appointed GAL (guardian ad litem).

Because each POV switch begins with a new chapter, the chapter title is the POV’s name (and also the year, if it’s a flashback) – which helps you identify which character you are now seeing through the eyes of. Plus, each POV is written in a different font. It’s still a little jarring to jump from the eyes and mouth of one character to another (I’m more comfortable with POV switches in third person), but mid-way through the first paragraph the writing is so good that you’re sucked in.
She marches upstairs and opens up our bedroom door to find my sister hysterical on her bed, and just like that the world collapses again…. “Kate!” My mother sinks down to the floor, that stupid skirt a cloud around her. “Kate, honey, what hurts?”

Kate hugs a pillow to her stomach, and tears keep streaming down her face. I stand frozen in the doorway of my own room, waiting for instructions: Call Daddy. Call 911. Call Dr. Chance. My mother goes so far as to shake a better explanation out of Kate. “It’s Preston,” she sobs. “He’s leaving Serena for good.”

That’s when we notice the TV. On the screen, a blond hottie gives a longing look to a woman crying almost as hard as my sister, and then he slams the door. “But what hurts?" my mother asks, certain there as to be more to it than this.

“Oh my God,” Kate says, sniffing. “Do you have any idea how much Serena and Preston have been through? Do you?”

As I am coming up the stairs, my mother comes out of her room wearing another ball gown… I zip it up for her and watch her twirl. My mother could be beautiful, if she were parachuted into someone else’s life. She has long dark hair and the fine collarbones of a princess, but the corners of her mouth turn down, like she’s swallowed bitter news. She doesn’t have much free time, since a calendar is something that can change drastically if my sister develops a bruise or a nosebleed, but what she does have she spends at, ordering ridiculously fancy evening dresses for places she is never going to go.

When I was little, the great mystery to me wasn’t how babies were made, but why. The mechanics I understood – my older brother Jesse had filled me in…. I paid attention to different details. Like why some mothers only had one child, while other families seemed to multiply before your eyes. Or how the new girl in school, Sedona, told anyone who’d listen that she was named for the place where her parents were vacationing when they made her (“good thing they weren’t staying in Jersey City,” my father used to say.)


  1. Isn't Picoult a wonderful writer to study for craft hints?

    I've gotten lost in each book of hers I've read.

  2. I loved your analysis. I guess I'll add this to my list at the library. I've never read anything by Picoult.

  3. Awesome breakdown! Picoult is one to learn from, for certain.

  4. Another example of someone breaking the rules through great writing! Thanks for the thoughtful analysis.

  5. Wow. This is both a great analysis AND a review - in that at least you've really made me want to read this book. LOL Thanks for doing it!

    Like your blog, btw. I always appreciate finding Christians out here.



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