Book Reviews

Book Review: The Tenth Circle by Jodi Picoult – One Family’s Trip Through the Hell Known as the Teenage Years

Jodi Picoult is known for taking risks with her stories, often combining stories straight from the headlines with interesting characters and giving them a twist that her readers don’t always see coming.  In The Tenth Circle, Picoult tackles the subject of date-rape, specifically among teenagers.  I can imagine many people would be distressed by where she ends up taking the story, but more on that later on (with spoilers marked).

Trixie Stone lives in a small town in Maine, the only child of a college professor mother, Laura, and comic book artist father, Daniel.  They seem to have an idyllic life, but there are cracks in the perfection.  Laura is having an affair with one of her students.  Daniel is under the pressure of deadlines for a graphic novel based on Dante’s The Tenth Circle of Hell, which also happens to be what Laura specializes in teaching at the college.  You would think that would provide an opportunity for the two of them to connect again, but that doesn’t seem to be happening.

The worst, though, is Trixie.  She’s at an age with a lot of social pressures in school.  She has a seemingly terrific boyfriend named Jason who’s also a hotshot hockey player.  When Jason breaks up with her, though, Trixie spirals downhill.  She can think of nothing except getting him back and will do almost anything to achieve that.  After a party, though, Trixie claims Jason raped her.

The book details the effects this has on the two on either side of the accusations, Trixie’s family, as well as the community.  People take sides in who they believe, and Trixie isn’t the little angel her parents believe her to be.  Too wrapped up in their own worries, they have missed many signs of what was going on with their daughter.  This is particularly the case with Daniel, who has always seen himself as his daughter’s hero and feels ineffectual.  Living in a small town, there are many opportunities for Trixie’s and Jason’s paths to cross and while she blames him for raping her, he blames her for ruining his life, stating it was consensual and Trixie is lying.

When Jason turns up dead, at first it’s believed to be a suicide.  Slowly, though, evidence comes to light which makes it seem that this might not be so.  As the investigation points more and more at Trixie, she runs away to the place of her father’s childhood, a small town he has nothing but bad memories of in Alaska.

The Tenth Circle is a cautionary tale for all involved.  For teens, it shows how easily someone’s world can spiral out of control just from one bit of bad judgment.  No matter what the outcome, Jason’s world is ruined just from possibly taking advantage of a situation presented to him as is Trixie’s who will never walk down the street in her hometown again without hearing whispers.

As for the parents, they became so wrapped up in what was going on in their lives that they somehow missed that their child had grown up to the point where she was facing some very adult issues and social pressures.  What’s revealed to them as the investigation into the rape allegations comes as a shock.  To anyone who has teenagers, it shouldn’t come as a shock that these pressures are out there and it’s up to parents to get between these situations and our children.

What distinguishes The Tenth Circle from other Picoult books are the excellent illustrations meant to be glimpses into what Daniel has been working on.  They are stunning in their detail and depth, even printed in black and white.  They really are a marvel to see and there are clues if you’ll look through them to find all of the letters to what’s at the center of the story.

The characters have a lot of depth, although I felt at times that it went off into the history of what happened to Daniel and Laura in the days before Trixie was born a bit too much, distracting from the main story of what the family was going through now.  Sure, it’s important to have the background, especially since Picoult was going to take readers up to Alaska to the one place Daniel never wanted to return to, but there were times when his story seemed to take over the novel with what I felt was little payoff.

The title of the book is not only about what Laura teaches or what Daniel is working on, but what the family is going through.  It seems as if each chapter almost opens up another circle of hell that they are going through, and even the ending leaves it ambiguous as to whether the family can recover, although there would seem to be hope; it’s as if they have reached the bottom of the pit and can now begin the journey back.  Is that the case? As usual, Picoult doesn’t wrap things up for her readers in a nice package.  I like that as the few times she has tried to do that I’ve felt less satisfied than when she’s left it a bit ambiguous.

** SPOILER: The ending has Trixie finally confess that she doesn’t know if she ever told Jason “No” out loud or if it was just in her head.  This can be a bitter pill to swallow for women’s groups who decry it when an alleged rape victim’s story is pulled apart and examined.  They claim no one would put themselves through all of this if they weren’t raped, but this story would seem to indicate otherwise.  I don’t know how I feel about that.  I’ve gone back and forth on my thoughts since reading The Tenth Circle.  What that does do, though, is serve as a cautionary tale to teenage boys.  Even if they think they are just taking advantage of an opportunity presented to them believing the quickie sex is consensual, it can backfire on them big-time. **END SPOILER

The Tenth Circle was not an easy read, particularly for anyone who is a parent of teens.  I don’t know if I would want teens reading it, but they will.  It left me with so many mixed feelings on the subject of rape and the way it’s presented here.  I did love all of the graphic drawings in the book, but the story lost me a bit when it went so deeply into the background of Daniel and Laura.  It’s still a good story to read, but by no means a light summer read by the pool.

3 1/2 stars

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