Friday, June 13, 2014

The Storyteller, by Jodi Picoult

A couple of titles ago, I decided not to read any more Jodi Picoult because her books were so predictable. Then I read a description of The Storyteller and decided to try it because it was different from her typical book. While some aspects of The Storyteller are straight out of the Picoult tool kit--a New England setting, multiple narrators, a legal turn, and a twist at the end--the content of the story is quite unusual for Picoult.

Sage Singer is a baker, working for a former nun, blaming herself for her mother's death, having an affair with a married funeral director, and trying to hide physical and emotional scars. She becomes friends with an elderly customer, Josef Weber, a man much admired in their small town. Then Josef shocks her by telling her that he was a member of the SS guilty of atrocities while working at Auschwitz. What is more, he wants Sage to help him die.

Shocked by this request, Sage reaches out to a government attorney, Leo Stein, who investigates and prosecutes war criminals. He convinces her to talk with her grandmother, an Auschwitz survivor, to see if she can corroborate any of the information provided by Josef.  Josef and Sage's grandmother narrate their wartime stories while Leo and Sage grapple with what to do in the present. Interspersed with these narratives is an allegory about a mythic Polish monster similar to a zombie; Sage's grandmother began writing the story as a girl and it played an important role in her time in the concentration camp.

I had mixed feelings about The Storyteller. The narratives set during the 1930s and 1940s were fascinating, providing detail that I had not internalized from other books and movies. On the other hand, the plot depended on unlikely coincidences, and the love story seemed entirely unbelievable. Furthermore, when Picoult tries to deal with questions of forgiveness--can Josef be forgiven and by whom?--the discussion is muddled. Muddling can be good if it causes you to question your ideas but this is the kind of muddling that makes you ask: What the heck is she saying?

I'm glad I decided to read The Storyteller, but I think Picoult could have done much more with the contemporary story.

Favorite passage:
That's the paradox of loss: How can something that's gone weigh us down so much? 

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