Book Reviews

Book Review: Songs of the Humpback Whale by Jodi Picoult – Her First Novel, Not Her Best

I was introduced to author Jodi Picoult through a summer reading assignment at my kids’ high school a few years back.  Since then, I have been making my way through her other works.  For the most part, I’ve liked them as Picoult is an author who manages to write a good story that also makes the reader think a bit. Her spin on a topical issue takes it out of the headlines and brings it right to the people involved.

I finally went back and read her first novel, Songs of the Humpback Whale.  It tackles a variety of serious subjects including the breakdown of a marriage, childhood abuse, and infidelity.  Unfortunately, though, it is a book that I didn’t feel gave any real depth to any of these stories.  In many ways, Picoult is still trying to find her voice here and doesn’t achieve what she could have with these topics.

Jane Jones is a speech therapist in San Diego.  One day after a vicious fight with her husband, noted oceanographer Oliver Jones, she hops in her station wagon with their fifteen-year-old daughter and leaves.  With little but the clothes on their back, Jane and Rebecca must make their way across the country following letters left for them in various post offices by Jane’s brother Joley.

However, Oliver is not about to walk away from his marriage and he’s not about to let Jane, either.  Despite the fact that Jane is avoiding using credit cards, he manages to track her.  The question all along, though, is whether their relationship is capable of being saved.

The first issue I had with Songs of the Humpback Whale was the structure of the book.  It’s told in five voices with Picoult jumping around to give various perspectives on the same series of events.  This is something she has done in other novels, but here she doesn’t really have the style down as well as she will in future novels.  Between that and jumping around in time, I was very confused at times. Picoult starts in one place, goes back in time, goes ahead to a different time and place, and then goes back again to a point further along than where she started but still in the same timeline.

The main issue, though is with all of the issues she lays out in this novel, none of them are given the depth needed to convey the impact of the story. Jane and Oliver have a rocky relationship for a variety of reasons. Oliver’s past infidelities are glossed over. Jane’s hidden past of abuse that she has never opened up to Oliver about is never clearly defined as interfering with their relationship. Then there’s the plane crash Rebecca survived as a baby. Much is made of that, but the emotional and psychological impact on the family is also hard to define except that it led to a reconciliation the last time Jane tried to leave Oliver.  It also seemed to me that Joley is in love with his sister throughout the book, and yet Jane seems oblivious to this as well.  There was so much here that should have given the characters a good deal of depth and yet I felt they were all pretty shallow and unlikable for the most part.

Songs of the Humpback Whale represents to me the weakest Picoult novel I’ve read.  There was plenty of room for her to grow from here and grow she did.  I really wouldn’t recommend anyone go back and check out this novel even if you like later Picoult novels. The only thing I found it was good for was seeing that even some of our favorite authors had to start somewhere and quite often their beginnings weren’t all that great.

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