Book Reviews

Book Review: My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult – If You Could Only Save One Child…

We’ve always heard that question.  You know the one – if two of your children were drowning and you could only save one, which one would you choose?  Most parents dance around this as we cannot picture being in that scenario and having to make that terrible, desperate choice.

Being a parent always means making choices.  Sometimes it’s not fair; you have to make a choice that benefits one child while costing another.  Usually, it’s something relatively mundane, such as do I take Child A to swim lessons or attend the concert of Child B?  While those might seem like huge crises at the time, a dose of healthy perspective is sometimes warranted.  Jodi Picoult provides that with My Sister’s Keeper.

Brian and Sara have a boy and a girl and feel their family is complete.  Then one day, their daughter Kate becomes ill.  They learn she has leukemia.  The solution is a designer baby in that the child is conceived to be a DNA match for Kate and provides cord blood upon birth to save Kate’s life.  This is how Anna comes into the family.

As if the issues of being conceived only as an afterthought to save your sibling’s life weren’t enough, Anna is continually tapped through the years.  Although the procedure was promising, it didn’t cure Kate, plus there were complications.  When Kate needs blood or bone marrow, it’s Anna to the rescue.  Finally, when they are in their pre-teen years, Anna has had enough.  As the family prepares for Anna to donate a kidney to Kate, Anna heads off to find a lawyer.  Anna wanted a medical emancipation from her parents so she can make her own decisions about her own body.  It seems that through all the years, no one has ever asked Anna what she wants.

My Sister’s Keeper details the legal battle, which is usually central to a Jodi Picoult book.  At the same time, the reader gets to envision Kate deteriorating and essentially dying as Anna looks on.  It’s a gut-wrenching scenario for any parent – which child’s rights are more important?

The characters are interesting.  There are a lot of flashbacks and memories to the time before this legal battle.  The family never seemed truly happy, just cruising through life with some happy moments.  Oldest son Jesse has been virtually ignored for years as Brian and Sara turn a blind eye to all of the trouble he’s been causing.  The entire family life seems to revolve around Kate and her illness, not that Kate wants it that way.  Kate and Anna get along remarkably well for the most part, even once Anna embarks on her legal challenge.

Sara is probably the most complex character in many ways.  She’s a lawyer who left her practice to be a parent.  Her legal skills come back as she represents the family to try to maintain their rights as Anna’s parents to make her medical decisions.  At the same time, she’s not always likable.  I think Picoult likes to write characters like this who make decisions and choices we don’t always agree with and whose motivations we question.  The biggest reason I could come up with for not liking her is her single-minded focus on Kate to the exclusion of her other children.  Even when Anna tries to assert some independence and starts playing hockey and playing it damn well, Sarah seems to see this interest of Anna’s as an inconvenience.  Realistically, I don’t know what I would have done in that situation.  We parents are very good at judging one another.  She’s no Carol Brady, that’s for sure, but then would any of us really want that in our parents?

Brian seems to be the steadying influence in their life; the constant.  However, even he seems to retreat into the sanctity of the firehouse, throwing himself into his work as a firefighter so as not to have to think about the storm swirling around his home life.  He is the one who hugs Anna when she needs it and gives her a safe space to be herself.  He is the one who ultimately confronts Jesse.  Perhaps it is this role reversal of sorts that bristles so many people against Sara instinctively.  We have been conditioned as a society to expect this from the mother, and when we don’t see it we react negatively.

Also in the story is Anna’s lawyer Campbell.  At first, he seems like nothing more than an ambulance chaser who’s latched on to a case that will gain him the most attention.  By the end of the book, he seems like something quite different.  This has a lot to do with Julia, Anna’s court-appointed guardian who had a relationship with Campbell at one time.  I found a lot of the interaction between Campbell and Julia to be a distraction from the main thrust of the story, though I do have to confess I was hooked the whole way through just to find out what purpose Campbell’s service animal served.

The biggest problem with the book is the structure.  Picoult jumps around between varying perspectives, and although this is distinguished by the typeset and the heading of each chapter, it can make the story hard to follow at times.  I gave My Sister’s Keeper to my 14-year-old to read, and she ended up giving up as it was too confusing for her.  Older teen girls in my home did devour it, however.  Picoult has become a favorite author of the three of us over the past year.

My Sister’s Keeper is not light summer reading and it’s not an uplifting book.  In the end, I was more depressed after reading this than anything else, and that was after Picoult attempted to tack on a fairy tale ending of sorts.  I didn’t like that most of all, and it’s probably one of Picoult’s least ambiguous endings.  There’s hope that the family pulls themselves together, but it doesn’t feel real after all that happened.  I also would have liked to have read more about the ramifications of the feelings these designer babies have that they are conceived and brought into the family as an afterthought.  That is never really explored and I was disappointed.

That’s not to say I don’t recommend the book.  On the contrary, I highly recommend it.  Most parents will reflect on their own feelings were they to be put in a similar situation.  My Sister’s Keeper was a page-turner and I really couldn’t wait to get to the end of the book to find out how it turned out.


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