Jodi Picoult is an author that likes to tackle the hard questions in our society in her novels. From school shootings to individual rights to child molestation, she seems unafraid to tackle any subject and ask her readers to think about it a little differently.
The Storyteller was published in 2013, more than 70 years after the start of World War II. This is important when looking at the characters she has created in the novel. What begins as a book that seems to be telling the story of Sage Singer turns into something much more. Sage was driving the car when she got into an accident that killed her mother and left her with a scarred face. Convinced that no one could ever love her due to how she looks, she lives as a recluse of sorts. Her job is an overnight baker of bread in a bakery run by a former nun and she is having an affair with a married man.
At a grief support group, she makes the acquaintance of Josef Weber. He also visits the bakery nearly every day and she befriends him. Josef is a retired teacher who is a cornerstone of the town, having volunteered with the little league and other civic organizations. There is a deep friendship formed between the two until Josef asks Sage to kill him.
What follows from there are several stories. We get not just Sage’s story of how she came to this point, but also that of her grandmother, Minka, who survived the Holocaust but hasn’t talked much about it. As her story is revealed, we also hear a story crafted by Minka in her youth, which also helped her survive.
Sage has doubts about the story Josef tells her and who he is claiming to be. She reaches out for help and makes the acquaintance of a federal agent whose job it is to track down Nazis who have managed to evade prosecution. Together they come up with a way to confirm who Josef is claiming to be before they arrest him.
I wanted to like The Storyteller but I found it hard. Not only does the story feel like it’s a stretch for this timeframe, but there are too many inconsistencies in the story. The fact that Minka was a Jewish woman who survived a concentration camp and her granddaughter knows virtually nothing about it is hard to comprehend. I’d have to believe that after surviving the camps and immigrating to a new country, Minka virtually turned her back on her faith and did not instill any of her family with her Jewish faith and traditions. I would also have to be able to believe the coincidence of Josef and Minka ending up not all that far apart near the end of their lives, after their lives intersected earlier (saying any more would be a spoiler, but trust me, it’s a stretch.)
It can be hard to write about the Holocaust in a way that serves all of the characters, and I think she missed the mark here. Picoult seems to want to make the reader sympathize with Josef and like him, but I think she only serves to do the opposite. It feels like she wants us to have misgivings about him being arrested and possibly put to death for crimes committed 70+ years prior. I don’t think this served the story well at all.
Picoult also goes on tangents having to do with the baking of bread. At first, this feels like filler, but it ties back into where Sage comes from, although she doesn’t know it at the time. It felt like a stream of consciousness coming from her brain as she was trying to shut out the world and her own feelings of inadequacy. Still, I think this could have been edited to take out a lot of the parts that really don’t have to do with the story. It drags in spots and made me want to skip ahead, which I struggled not to do.
The best books Picoult writes, in my opinion, are the ones with ambiguous endings, or the ones that don’t necessarily have a “happily ever after” quality to it. The ending here, while somewhat unnerving, seemed like she was trying to give that happily ever after to Sage and it really didn’t feel right. I would have preferred some ambiguity or have her return to the life of a recluse, unable to handle the choices she made. Although I don’t have a problem with what she did, it is something that many people would find hard to live with, even under these circumstances.
I did like The Storyteller better than The Book of Two Ways, though. There was so much extraneous material in that one it was hard to like the story at all. It’s pared-down in The Storyteller at least. The characters are interesting and quirky which makes them fun, but I found the story a little hard to fit into the timeline created as well as a few other issues. I’d give it three stars.