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How far would you go for someone you loved?
Mercy - Jodi Picoult
Member Name: brokenangel
Mercy - Jodi Picoult
Advantages: Easy to read; topical issues
Disadvantages: Slightly clunking style; topical issues not fully explored
An increasingly familiar name to anyone who keeps even half an ear on literary matters, Jodi Picoult has published a number of novels that share a familiar format and focus on topical issues. In fact, Picoult is such a popular writer that I often feel I must be missing something when I reflect on my fairly negative feelings about her novels, so I decided to try one more to help me reach a fairer conclusion. I chose 'Mercy' because it covers a particularly interesting topical issue...and because it was on sale for 20p at the library! Would this be the novel that convinced me to change my opinion?
The central idea is an engaging one: Jamie MacDonald suffocates his adored wife, Maggie, to release her from a slow, painful death from terminal cancer. Euthanasia is an issue which should grip readers' interest and ensure that the novel rarely rests between reading sessions. Unfortunately, Jamie (and his story) is overshadowed by the supposed subplot in which a respected man in the community cheats on his rather doormat-like wife. The moral arc of the story is fairly obvious from even this very brief overview. Picoult encourages us to sympathise with Jamie, a broken man who finds that his decision has not led to any relief, and contrast his behaviour with his cousins'. This is such an obvious plot device that it can only add a limited depth to the story. Picoult does not seem to credit her readers with much intelligence and therefore continually feels it necessary to drive home the thematic link through redundant sentences like this: 'Jamie MacDonald had murdered his wife more gently than Cam had made love to his own' [after the reader has witnessed both events in the preceding pages].
Cam MacDonald has a loving, devoted wife, but he feels stifled by his ties to the town he was born in, which was founded by his great grandfathers. This is exacerbated by wife Allie's homely inclinations and fear of travelling. Restless and bored, Cam falls instantly 'in love' with newcomer Mia and conducts an increasingly reckless affair. For me, this simply didn't ring true. I'm not a believer in love-at-first-sight anyway (surely love is based on understanding, respect and appreciation of someone's personality?) but this was very clearly a case of lust-at-first-sight. Picoult tries to suggest that this is a deep and meaningful relationship through never-fully-substantiated references to a shared past, but the evidence of her narrative speaks for itself. The couple are intensely physically aware of each other from their first meeting, confess their love to each other on approximately their third meeting and can't make it through a scene together without tearing off each others clothes. If this book had a different cover, I might have mistaken parts of it for a Mills and Boon offering (albeit one of the less graphic ones). If we are to believe that Cam is a good man torn apart by love, then surely his grand love affair needed to have, um, love, as its base?
Speaking of scenes, the book does feel intensely dramatic. Chapters are usually broken up into short 'episodes' in which characters reflect or act in bursts of energy and activity, while the reader moves on, soap like, to the next instalment of someone else's story. Personally, I prefer a style that focuses more on one character and stays with then for the duration of a chapter. Presumably, this switching about is intended to help us feel a personal connection to each character, as we can learn about their family history and therefore deepen our understanding of their motives. Unfortunately, I felt that Picoult was once again showing her lack of trust in me as a reader by drawing me mini-maps of motives and connectivity. It's a bit like the nursery rhyme, except instead of piggies going to market we have little girls and boys: this little girl was neglected, so she's looking for love; this little boy feels the weight of the world on his shoulders, so he needs to escape...
Perhaps the most interesting facet of the relationship between Cam and his mistress is that they each reflect what the other has desperately desired, yet if they were to make a life together then neither would be what the other needed. For me, this was perhaps the most interesting idea in the book, suggesting that there are some dreams which can never be realised. Similarly, Jamie realises that his decision to kill his wife could never have had the ending they both imagined. Real life is something harsher, harder, in which compromises have to be made. Ultimately Picoult neither condones nor condemns their choices: she reveals that their choices have their basis in fantasy and tracks the consequences of ignoring reality.
Therefore, although the supposed main storyline is slightly overshadowed by the subplot, the overall topics are explored well: what would you do for someone you love? Are relationships ever equal? Picoult is a little clumsy in the way she draws attention to these issues, but they are certainly issues worth exploring. The pace of the action is quick, despite the sustained reflections of the characters, and the central trial, although left rather late in the novel, is interesting. Unlike in previous novels I had read by this author, Picoult does not dodge the central issue and the outcome is highly revealing of her own position. The conclusion of the relationship between Cam and his wife is slightly less satisfying since, like the development of his relationship with Mia, it seems rather hastily done. Picoult could, ultimately, tell us much less and show us much more to create a much more subtle and credible tale.
So, is it worth reading? If you're a fan of Picoult, then this is her standard fare and you're sure to enjoy it. If you're more interested in the issues surrounding euthanasia, then I'd recommend you look elsewhere, for the focus of this novel is not really the mercy killing itself, but how far beyond accepted social behaviour someone would go for a loved one. If you like well developed characters who act in psychologically convincing ways over a period of time, then I'd look elsewhere. If you're more interested in reading about clearly sketched characters in a fast moving plot, then you may well enjoy this novel. For me, I think this will be my last foray into Picoult's writings...until I once again convince myself that there must be more substance than I've yet found in such a best-selling author.
Summary: One for Picoult's established fans, but not for me.