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Well another book club has come and gone.  This time our book was My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult.  Now, I have read other books by Picoult, so I felt I knew what to expect.  I was not disappointed.

Ms. Picoult is an expert on creating a fascinating story.  The bare bones of her novels never disappoint.  The stories she creates are always compelling and My Sister’s Keeper was no exception.  In this novel, Picoult brings the reader a fascinating story of a family in turmoil as a daughter struggles with a rare form of lukehemia.  What makes it fascinating though, is not the character’s, Kate’s, fight against this disease, but her sister’s (Anna’s) fight for independence.  The real crux of the story is that Anna was conceived to be a genetically perfect match for her sister, thus providing Kate with the blood, tissues, etc. she would need to conquer her illness.

Picoult masterfully weaves the stories of all the characters in what is, at times, a heart wrenching novel.  We see the story from the perspective of each family member, with the exception of Kate, and even the perspectives of Anna’s attorney in her fight for medical emancipation and a court appointed guardian.  The story complicates itself at some points by involving the latter two, whom are not only involved with this terribly intricate court case, but were involved with each other as teenagers.  Apparently their’s was a true love that did not fade with the passing of 15 years since they’ve been apart.  While the perspecitives of these two is interesting since it provides an outsiders view into the world of this dysfunctional family, it is overly emotional as each flashback to their teenage romance.

The main story telling device of this novel is the first person perspective.  While this is a useful and intimate narration, Picolout pulls out one of her tricks by having nearly half of each character’s chapter be a flashback to some emotionally telling exeperience.  At times these flashbacks are revealing of a character’s motivations, and at others this is an overly cheesy way to pull at the reader’s heartstrings.  As typical for Picolout the narrations swing between fascinating, fast moving story telling, and overly emotional, hit you over the head symbolism, drivel.

I did enjoy this novel for it’s interesting story, but as usual I was disappointed by Picoult’s overly obvious literary devices and cheesy romances.  As a law geek I loved the court aspect of this novel! Yet as an overly sympathetic reader, I couldn’t see this from every perspective, only the moral incorrectness of it.  To cap it all off with, the ending is somewhat of a doozie and I will leave that to you, dear reader, to determine if you like it or.  As for this reader, I felt a myriad of emotions only truly evoked when a story has touched my heart, as cheesy as that is.  🙂

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If you’ve been reading my blog you know that I am a modern housewife. One of the qualifications of being a “modern” housewife is that I am very well educated. I am also an avid reader (but this has been the hallmark of housewives for at least a century). I was once told by my grad professor at over 60% of high literary fiction published each year is consumed by women, particularly well- educated women. I would definitely fall into this category. And to round out the picture, I started a book club with some friends that meets once a month to discuss the book du jour. We spend a good amount of time talking about the book, and also a good amount of time gossiping, drinking wine, and nibbling on appetizers.

My book club has found that we lack structure. We aren’t sure of themes to discuss or questions to ask, if not readily apparent. So in response, I’ve decided to do a weekly blog on a possible book club book. This week’s selection: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.

This book does come with a section devoted to book-group discussion questions, as well as a conversation with the author, but I thought it would be a good book to start with.

To begin with, I was pleasantly surprised to find this an excellent read and truly deserving of it’s New York Times Bestseller status. So often, I’ve found books on those lists to be lacking in one respect or another, whether it is in plot, character development, description, etc. I found none of these areas to be lacking in Water.

It is a tale told simultaneously by one man, who has become two over the years. One side of the story is told by Jacob Jankowski at 90 or 93, and the other is told by Jacob Jankowski at 23. You can imagine the difference in these two men as 70 years has passed. The whole story is sparked by a circus setting up across the street from Mr. Jankowski’s assisted living facility (in other words an old folks home). It is this seemingly insignificant event that causes a wave of memories to come rushing into Mr. Jankowski’s dreams and waking moments. These memories begin with the Jacob at Cornell University, finishing his veterinary degree. It is in the final weeks of his degree that his parents are both killed in an automobile accident. Though this in itself is shocking enough, Jacob returns home to find that he no longer has a home. We, the reader, then start to patch together the time period. We know that Jacob’s story is set in the early part of the 20th century, but just how early or late was unclear. It is with the death of his parents and the bank taking his parent’s home, land, everything, that we understand that this is the particularly devastating time of the Great Depression. We also learn that having a good job like being a veterinarian doesn’t mean you’ll be spared the crushing despair of the time period, as we learn through the fact that Jacob’s father, also a vet, took payment in the form of beans or eggs or whatever his customers could pay.

Jacob is left alone and bewildered. He returns to school only to leave moments later and wanders off into the dark, where he just walks and walks and walks until exhaustion and hunger stop him. It is at this moment that his adventure begins. Jacob hops a train and inadvertently joins the circus. Things grow increasingly interesting as the cast of characters is revealed. Jacob’s bunk-mate is a defensive dwarf, his love interest is a married horse-performing Marlena, his adversary is the director of animals married to the lovely Marlena. Things become more complicated as the world of Depression Era circuses is revealed to us. The desperation is tangible and the air tense as we discover that the circus owner and operator is as dangerous as he is cruel, and his second in command, August the animal director, is an unstable and paranoid schizophrenic.

It is a joy to watch Gruen unravel the tapestry before our eyes to reveal the secrets behind it. The characters seem to dance a waltz around each other that we know will only end in disaster, but we cannot turn our eyes away. We, the readers, seem to feel their emotions and tensions as our own, as we cringe in horror or gasp in excitement. There are few books that can create this type of transferable emotion.

The only part of the novel that verges on disappointment is the time we spend with Mr. Jankwoski. Though he is a sympathetic and somewhat interesting character, our time with him often languishes in the doldrums of old folks home politics. My biggest joy in reading these passages was knowing that they led another piece of the Jacob puzzle.

If you or your book club is considering reading this book, here are some themes or questions I suggest discussing:

1. The desperation of of the Depression and how it affected people morally

2. Describe the circus

3. Treatment of animals then vs. now

4. What causes a person to dramatically break from their past? or their morals?

Also use the book club guide in the end of the book. And as a side note here are some possible snacks for the meeting: roasted peanuts, popcorn, cotton candy, lemonade (in other words, circus fare).

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