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.

Book Review: OKSANA, BEHAVE! a self-destructive protagonist from Kiev growing up in the U.S.

Kuznetsova, Maria - Oksana, Behave coverOksana, Behave!
Maria Kuznetsova

Oksana Konnikova moved to the United States from Kiev with her parents when she was a child. Although her father was a Math Olympics champion in Russia, while working as a physicist in Gainesville, Florida, he had to deliver pizza to make ends meet. Her mother, struggling to find work as an accountant, often fell into depression. And she shared a room with her sassy grandmother who enjoyed the catcalls she received while walking down Prostitute Street. They affectionately call Oksana “fool” or “idiot” but it speaks to a distance between her and her family, perhaps most sadly illustrated when her parents and grandmother go out to dinner to celebrate but leave her behind in the apartment, alone.

Each chapter is written almost as if a self-contained short story and jumps forward in time with only the characters in common. The structure was interesting, and I got a kick out of seeing the brief mentions of Oksana’s high school friend, Lily, and her changing careers, throughout the book. At the same time, the quality and impact of the chapters was uneven. It also offers a less intimate view of the characters since we see them in bits over many time periods.

Oksana certainly is badly behaved. As a child, testing if the police will really come if she calls 911, she reports that her grandmother is trying to kill her. When a tween, she severely injures a bully when protecting a younger child from his abuses. As she ages, her behavior becomes both more selfish and more self-destructive, leaving a swath of cruel destruction in its wake. Even at the end of the novel, when her life has changed dramatically, her choices have not, and it isn’t clear she’s learned anything from the pain she’s caused.

I had also expected much more mediation on the immigrant experience. Her name and other people’s difficulty pronouncing it, her family’s food preferences, and her travel to the Ukraine are embedded in the story, but I’m not sure if we are to take Oksana’s bad behavior as a manifestation of her immigrant experience, her personality, or the result of her upbringing.

Also, I’d hoped for more information on her grandmother’s experiences in the war. From the description, I thought this would play more of a role. Certainly, this history was important to Oksana, but it wasn’t included in the novel but for a paragraph or two.

Maria Kuznetsova does have some wonderful passages and heartrending dialogue, but I found myself empathizing much more with Oksana’s victims than with her. I hoped she would develop and change over the course of the novel, but she never seemed to learn to behave. Maybe, though, the end was just the beginning.

Thank you to NetGalley and Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: THE NIGHT TIGER, a story imbued with legends unfolding in colonial Malaya

Choo, Yangsze - The Night Tiger (4)The Night Tiger
Yangsze Choo

On his deathbed, Dr. MacFarlane, who had only four fingers on one hand made his young houseboy, Ren, promise to find his missing finger and bury it with his body within forty-nine days of his death. Meanwhile, independent Ji Lin, a dressmaker’s apprentice who is secretly working as a “dance instructor” at a dance hall to pay off her mother’s mahjong gambling debts, steals a vial from a client–and inside is a finger preserved in salt.

Dr. MacFarlane sends Ren to Batu Gajah to work for William Acton, the surgeon who removed his finger to save him from infection. Meanwhile, Ji Lin learns that the client from whom she stole the finger suddenly died, and his funeral was being held in a town near Falin, where she grew up. Back in Falin, she was surprised to see her stepbrother, Shin, who had been studying medicine in Singapore. Although Ji Lin had always been the better student, her stepfather refused to further her education. Though Shin and Ji Lin were born the same day and were close as twins during childhood, they grew apart. Ji Lin had jealousy that he was living her dream of going to medical school, but also other, confusing feelings of attraction. Shin was home for the summer working as an orderly at the Batu Gajah District Hospital, where William Acton worked as a surgeon. Ultimately, with no one else to trust, she confided in Shin about the finger.

Though Ji Lin was desperate to rid herself of the finger, it kept appearing in her possession as a precocious and strange young Chinese boy circled her dreams. Meanwhile, young local women were being killed, ostensibly by a tiger–some feared a weretiger–though pathologist Dr. Rawlings thought that it was more likely they were murdered before tigers mauled their bodies. Ren’s deadline was fast approaching, and Ji Lin seemed to be his solution, but it seemed like they might never meet. And Ji Lin’s possession of the finger placed her in unexpected danger. At the same time, the deaths of the women might reveal terrible secrets William Acton has tried to hide.

I liked a lot about The Night Tiger, particularly the setting–colonial Malaya, its flora, fauna, and weather, and learning about the legends of the area–regarding weretigers and beliefs about Chinese numbers. Although Choo critiques the gender hierarchy, in my opinion she does miss an opportunity to criticize British rule, though the description of how the British lived might be censure enough.

Ji Lin offered an ostensibly layered character. Because of her intelligence and experience at the dance hall, she was savvy and blunt, but still proper. However, at critical junctures she made outlandish assumptions or was silent when she needed to be confrontational.

While Shin, her stepbrother / object of her affections was supportive, he was also prone to possessiveness and rage, a shade lighter than his father who was physically abusive to Ji Lin’s stepmother. Not only is it rather creepy to have her stepbrother as a love interest, it seems again that supposedly wise Ji Lin ignores obvious warning signs.

Ren, though quick to learn and conscientious, has a single-minded determination to fulfill MacFarlane’s mission, and even very sage advice and tragedy don’t slow him down or make him think twice about his journey, though at eleven, that might be understandable.

A lot of attention is given to the five Confucian virtues and how they are a set. In the book, certain characters represent the virtues and they, too, are supposed to represent a set, but why they are connected and what this means is never very clear. (Many of them don’t meet each other.)

Finally, although the novel did have some “mature themes,” many times it read like a young adult novel to me. If it were a movie, it would definitely have been produced under the Hays Code.

I think there are a lot of readers who would enjoy this book, and I certainly did find the depiction of the surroundings interesting, but the The Night Tiger didn’t live up to my (possibly too high) expectations.

Book Review: VACUUM IN THE DARK, a sequel that doesn’t live up to its predecessor

Beagin, Jen - Vacuum in the Dark (4)Vacuum in the Dark
Jen Beagin

Two years after the events in Pretend I’m Dead, Mona Boyle, the sardonic cleaning professional, sometimes artist, and compulsive liar returns in Vacuum in the Dark. She’s made little progress since the events of the previous volume.

Partly because of her past sexual abuse, Mona’s boundaries are ill-formed. Not only does she act unprofessional while cleaning–taking pictures in her clients’ clothes or nude while posing in their houses–she develops inappropriate relationships with them, having an affair with the husband of one client, posing nude for another client, a semifamous painter. One of the things I enjoyed so much about Pretend I’m Dead was Mona’s funny metaphors involving cleaning products and her obsession with external order, in contrast to her internal chaos. For the most part, that is absent from this book.

Mona continues her path of self-abasement, engaging in casual sexual experiences and drug use. She unquestioningly takes a pill from a client, not wondering if it is a good idea, not even wondering what it is or what it’s effects might be. Even her internal voice, Terry Gross, a welcome dose of rational thought, doesn’t interject. As much as the imaginary Terry Gross serves a purpose by keeping Mona engaged with reality, I thought the device was overused in the novel and it pulled me out of the narrative.

Mona seems not just unwilling but unable to call people by their correct names. At first, it’s amusing, and her nicknames are either funny or telling, but on further thought, it reflects Mona’s inability to see others beyond their role in her own narrative, revealing her fundamental selfishness.

A trip to Los Angeles to see her mother (whom she refers to as Clare, even though her name is Darlene) and retrieve some boxes from storage mends her relationship with Clare and her stepdad and introduces her to Curt (whom she calls Kurt, for its backbone). Mona attempts normalcy in a loving relationship with Curt, but she chafes at its ordinariness. When the chance to return to her risky, previous world arises, she can’t resist, but a harrowing encounter shakes her like nothing else before. I hope that if there is a third Mona Boyle book, we’ll finally see at least a little bit of growth from this experience, since that wasn’t the case between the first two.

Book Review: IF, THEN: Disturbing visions strike neighbors in an Oregon college town

day, kate hope - if, then coverIf, Then
Kate Hope Day

Neighbors in a small Oregon college town near a dormant volcano begin to see visions. Mark sees visions of disaster that push him to make preparations beyond all logic. His wife, Dr. Ginny McDonnell, observes herself living happily with a different partner. Samara Mehta watches her mother–who has been dead a month–prepare to sell the family house. And new resident Cass, a brilliant graduate student and new mother struggling to find balance, glimpses visions of herself pregnant.

The idea behind If, Then is fascinating, but the execution did not completely deliver. The book began with an interesting premise and the beginning was fueled by the question of the meaning of the visions and introduction of the characters.

Telling the story from four points of view provides variety and, in the case of the plot of this book, is absolutely necessary, but the characters are not all equally likable. And while I know it’s a reality for new parents, I did get tired of the descriptions of Cass’s baby’s incessant crying.

It seems clear that Kate Hope Day conducted careful research because there are meticulous details about Ginny’s surgeries and Mark’s research, but the narrative at times gets bogged down in these details, and they come at the expense of characterization. Some of the most interesting characters are secondary: Samara’s mother, Cass’s graduate advisor, and survivalist Harry, perhaps because they are among the few characters to have backstories.

With the lull in the middle of the book, I was hopeful the ending would provide a big payoff, but the denouement was rather anticlimactic and the visions and their “rules of engagement” weren’t consistent or explained.

If, Then is solidly written though and I think will appeal to readers who are interested in the “Theory of Everything” and the possibility of multiverses.

Thank you to NetGalley and Random House for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.