Book Review: A SPARK OF LIGHT, held hostage in an abortion clinic

Picoult, Jodi - A Spark of LightA Spark of Light
Jodi Picoult

People come to the Center, a women’s reproductive health clinic and Mississippi’s only abortion provider, for myriad reasons. Some seek birth control, some are there for gynecological exams, some are working, some are protesting, some are friends and family of patients, and some, but by no means all, are there to have abortions.

George Goddard, though, has come to the Center for revenge, and after initially shooting five and killing three, he corrals the survivors into the clinic’s waiting room as he has a tense standoff with the police. Hugh McElroy, the police negotiator, has a vested interest in the case. His fifteen-year-old daughter, Wren, is inside, but he hides that information from his superior and coworkers since he knows he’ll be removed from active duty if his connection is revealed.

Meanwhile, the survivors, none of whom would have come together otherwise, develop bonds that buoy them as they support each other and try to outwit George, but are also tested as they all consider the reasons they’ve each arrived at the clinic on that particular day.

A second strand of the novel features Beth, a young girl who self-administered a medical abortion with drugs she ordered from China. When she hemorrhaged and was taken to the emergency room, a nurse called the police. Seventeen-year-old Beth, still recovering, was arrested for murder. Beth tried so hard to obtain an abortion legally, but she was too young, she was too far along, she didn’t have her father’s permission. . . I ache for Beth.

The novel is told backwards, starting from the end of the day, at 5:00 p.m., and retracing it hour-by-hour through 8:00 a.m. For me, this structure didn’t work in this particular novel. It required the introduction of information before context which made it confusion. Then, when the context was provided, the information was restated. To add to the repetition, some themes were simply repeated. At two different times, George considered how his actions didn’t corresponds with movies as he thought they would.

Given that the novel is set in a single day, it’s unreasonable to expect that every question will be resolved, but the novel itself highlights two questions that get abandoned: the relationship of Hugh and Wren to Annabelle, Wren’s mother plus the insidious nature of secrets. One character, in particular, seems to resolve to reveal her secrets after the clinic ordeal, but a hint of the future indicates that they are still buried.

I also found the writing at times to be problematic in a way that’s hard to describe, maybe didactic, maybe trite, maybe too overdone. One character thinks, “Who was going to rescue her now?” I’d expect to see such a sentiment in a romance novel.

What I did like about this book was the presentation of both sides of the abortion debate. I think it was more sympathetic to the pro-choice characters, though that may be my personal bias, but it certainly was empathetic to the pro-life protesters (except George, who was really not part of the anti-abortion movement but acting out of a personal narrative).

Picoult reveals how choice is an illusion when the lack of facilities, the presence of bureaucratic hurdles, and the shortage of resources present obstacle upon obstacle for women seeking abortions, particularly minors. She shows how the characters in Mississippi have to undergo a two-day process if they want an abortion: a day for counseling, in which the provider is required to provide a litany of information, much medically false, and a second day for the procedure. I thought I knew what it was like to seek an abortion in a southern state. I DID NOT.

Also perceptive is the link between anti-abortion campaigns and race and the fact that most pro-life protesters are middle-aged white men. The movement is about controlling women’s bodies, not protecting babies. As many have mentioned, if it were about babies, the same pro-life advocates would also be marching for social services to protect those babies after they are born.

So, then, I am decidedly mixed about A Spark of Light. I appreciated the depth of Picoult’s research and was moved and informed by the themes of the novel, but I didn’t care for the structure or writing.