My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Like a finely braided challah (the bread baked for the Jewish sabbath), Jodi Picoult weaves an intricate tale of redemption and forgiveness, identity and masks, and relationships of all sorts. And she does it all with a certain lightness, never getting heavy handed with her subject matter, the Holocaust, although it could easily slip into melodrama territory.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit I thought Picoult was a chicklit writer. My friend Monika is a big fan, and I should have known that since she read her, Picoult was probably not a writer with books leaning towards the feminine because that’s not who Monika is. It wasn’t until I read an article about the author that it finally started to sink in. So with Monika’s recommendation, I sat down to listen to The Storyteller. It’s good. Really good. It loses a little bit because I saw the final reveal coming a mile off (but then, maybe that’s a credit to Picoult’s ability since, with the characters she had set up, this was the only possible answer) but overall, it’s a great read.
The story follows several different characters and time periods, with a huge chunk of the middle of the book (Part Two) taken up with Minka’s story. Minka is a young Polish Jew who lives through the horrors of the Holocaust. We also hear from Sage, Minka’s grown granddaughter, in the present. A few other characters round out the point of view cast as we are lead through a tale involving the hunt for Nazi war criminals, what it means to forgive and be forgiven and enough descriptions of how to bake you shouldn’t read this on an empty stomach.
I don’t want to give too much away here, so I’ll leave out some of the more salient details and just say Sage meets a man named Joseph Weber, who is harboring some dark secrets from his past. When he takes Sage into his confidence and asks a huge favor of her, it strains at the seams of what is reasonable for one person to ask another.
Picoult also gives us a story within a story, a fairy tale of sorts which goes back beyond WWII to the days of the Russian Shtetls and brings in mythological figures who act as allegories for our more modern realities. These are the multiple threads Picoult is deftly weaving together.
It was explained to me when I was asking about her work that one of the things Picoult does well in her books is explore an issue from all sides, showing the world is not nearly so black and white as you might think. If that’s the case, this is her Holocaust book, and she makes the most of it. One of the interesting things, in terms of writing about this dark period of history, is that it’s so well woven into our everyday fabric, we tend to treat it as shorthand. Writer’s don’t have to create complex situations when they can evoke a Nazi undertaking or, in this case, by putting a character in Auschwitz, she’s already packed so much into it we need little else to garner emotional support and sympathy. Picoult uses this to her advantage, enabling her to build more complexity into her characters because we already feel for them. At the same time, her descriptions of life in the camp do a wonderful job of evoking the horror and soul sucking devastation ever-present.
Additionally, she is able to present a credible “other side of the story,” creating sympathy (of a sort) for the Nazi soldiers. This sympathy is absolutely essential to get this story across and if she had stumbled, even slightly, everything would have unraveled like a badly made sweater. But she doesn’t. She never asks you to pass judgment if you don’t want to, but at the same time, she allows you to place yourself on multiple sides of a complex issue just to see how you’d reac
In the end, all that really matters is I’m a fan. I will definitely be reading more of Jodi Picoult’s work.