Book Reviews

Book Review: Second Glance by Jodi Picoult – Re-Awakening the Horrors of the Past

On occasion, a book can leave me with the feeling of not knowing where to begin when discussing it. Sometimes it’s because I can’t verbalize my feelings for it adequately. More rarely, it’s because figuring out exactly where to begin discussing it is difficult. Such is the case with Jodi Picoult’s novel Second Glance.

I became a fan of Picoult’s work after one of her books appeared on a reading list for one of my high school kids. Picoult writes stories that are topical while at the same time weaving in interesting characters and a compelling story. The results are mixed, although I’m not sure she doesn’t intend at times for her readers to not be crazy about the characters we read about. In the case of Second Glance, I was a fan of the story most of the way through until the ending, and it was a sentiment shared by my daughter as well.

Ross Wakeman is a paranormal investigator. The drive behind this choice of profession is the self-inflicted guilt associated with the death of his girlfriend Aimee, who was killed in a car accident while Ross survived. To pile it on even further, her death occurred while he was helping someone from the other car involved in the wreck, although his presence at Aimee’s side would have done nothing to prevent her passing.

Ross’ sister Shelby lives in the small Vermont town of Comtosook with her son Ethan. Ethan suffers from a birth defect that basically makes him allergic to sunlight. Any exposure is potentially lethal to him and Shelby and Ethan live in the night. The fact that Ross does much of his work at night attracts eight-year-old Ethan who is eager to tag along on his Uncle’s investigations.

Ross is hired locally when a developer is having difficulties on a site, including a demolished house that seems to be reconstructing itself. The local Abenaki Indians claim it to be a burial ground and are protesting as well. While investigating, Ross encounters a woman who calls herself Lia and could potentially help him move on from Aimee.

Second Glance takes its readers into the world of paranormal investigators. It might seem familiar to people with shows on the air such as Ghost Hunters and Paranormal State, but at the time Second Glance was written in 2003, these shows weren’t on the air. Reading the discussion with Picoult about her research into this book, I was thrilled to read that she did actually go out with TAPS on an investigation and speaks well of them.

The other angle on the story which I found just as interesting is her research into the eugenics movement in this country, specifically the state project that took place in Vermont in the 1930s. The theory at the time was that in addition to birth defects, there were other personality traits that were inherited and if the people displaying these traits were sterilized, the less-than-desirable traits could be eliminated from the populace.

Spencer Pike, the previous owner of the property at the center of the dispute and the ghost hunt, was a college professor in the 1930s who spoke at length on the subject of eugenics and advocated for involuntary sterilization as well as the institutionalization of many of those on the fringes of society at the time. Are the ghosts allegedly appearing on the property the victims of his beliefs when he was younger? Or is there another, more personal answer to what’s going on?

Second Glance isn’t an easy read in many ways. There are many characters to follow and keep straight. I wondered at times why certain people were being talked about and what the purpose was to certain points. Enjoying Second Glance requires patience above all else as it does make sense in the end. Picoult does an excellent job researching and presenting the topic of eugenics. It surprised me a bit to learn what was happening in this country, although I had heard bits and pieces about it before reading Second Glance. It’s easy to see why Hitler picked up on many of the arguments presented by those who ran the project for his own final solution, and why many people are eager to try and bury what happened in this country’s past and forget about it.

The characters themselves are excellent. They all seem to be coming together at a time in their lives that is pivotal to all of them and will change each and every one in some way. That might feel a bit contrived, for it’s even as it applies to Shelby’s love life which really doesn’t relate directly to eugenics or paranormal investigations. Still, it works for the most part.

The ending of Second Glance left me a bit disappointed. Sure there were plot points all the way through that required me to suspend disbelief, but the way Picoult ties the accident Aimee died in with what would happen to Ross in the future just seemed a bit much to swallow.

I did really like Second Glance. It was part romance story, part ghost story, and also gave a look into a part of this country’s history that isn’t discussed all that much. I’m a fan of anything that especially gets kids thinking, and this will certainly do it on the topic of eugenics and that period in our history. The rest of it is pretty good although the ending felt a bit contrived. For the most part, this is a great read, and I recommend it.

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