Friday, February 22, 2013

The Storyteller, by Jodi Picoult

The Storyteller
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Atria (Simon & Schuster)
Publication Date: February 26, 2013
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I have only read two books by Jodi Picoult (the other one was Sing You Home) but based on these two I have come to some conclusions about her writing. First of all, her books are good, but in the way that Lifetime TV movies are good. They're intended to make you cry, and feel passionately about some issue or other for the couple of hours while you're watching, but they don't change your life and nobody's winning any awards over it. Jodi Picoult books are like Lifetime movies. She writes genre fiction in the genre of "I'm trying to make you cry by using tropes guaranteed to illicit emotion." Maybe I'm judging her too quickly based on just two books, but I really don't think so.

The Storyteller is a pat story. Everything fits together so neatly the reader doesn't have to do any work at all. The main character is Sage Singer (ugh! the name!), a twenty-five-year-old night baker with a scar on her face. The source of her scar is meant to be a big secret that is revealed later in the book but the "secret" is one you can see coming a mile away. She goes to grief counselling to deal with the loss of her parents, where she meets Josef, an elderly man who becomes one of her few friends.

In the introductory page at the beginning of the book, Picoult reveals that this book is based on another book in which a former Nazi asks a Jewish woman for forgiveness before he dies. So I don't think I'm ruining anything by saying that there are similar themes in this book. Sage is Jewish. Her grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. Josef is a German man in his nineties. He wants to die soon. Can you guess? I'm sure you can.

I realize that the book uses all the devices intended to get me to be emotionally invested but I just wasn't. The characters are so two-dimensional they are vaguely ridiculous. And the names! Sage's father was a baker too so he named his daughters Pepper, Saffron and Sage. Really? And Sage struggles with her faith so she has a boss named Mary and a friend named Josef (where's Jesus? asks no one). She's having an affair with a married man named Adam and I was a little surprised his wife's name wasn't Eve (although Eva is the name of Josef's dog, so the name still made an appearance). Then there's her co-worker Rocco. His name didn't bother me, but his quirky affectation is that he only ever speaks in haiku. I mean, come on! Am I seriously supposed to believe in characters like this? And don't get me started on the Jesus appearing in the bread loaf subplot.


The set up was so neat and mawkish that I at first expected it to be a fable, as though the author was deliberately exaggerating storytelling cliches in order to subvert them, or to tell a tale that transcends its sentimental setting and reveals a truth in human nature. I had hope because the story opens with the tale of yet another baker and his relationship with his daughter (not Sage). Could it be a fairy tale? Alas, no. In the end everything is explained and nothing is left to metaphor. It was like being spoon-fed soft emotion like porridge.

I realize that sounds harsh. It isn't that I hated the book. I also don't hate cozy mysteries (in fact, I love them!), so-called "chick-lit" or other genre fiction. But that's definitely what this is. It's not literary fiction in which the author reveals a some truth in humanity through a character arc that is carefully crafted and expects careful reading and inference on the part of the reader. It's essentially a plot-driven genre novel in the genre of "sentimental fiction."


Disclaimer: I received an advanced digital galley of this book free from Atria Books through Edelweiss. I was asked to write an honest review, though not necessarily a favourable one. I was not otherwise compensated in any way for my review. The opinions expressed are strictly my own.

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Sing You Home, by Jodi Picoult

4 comments:

  1. You have some facts wrong regarding The Storyteller (for one, the grandmother DID identify the Nazi soldier before she died), so it's difficult to take your review seriously. You should also read more of an author's books before making sweeping generalizations about their writing. The next time you read a book, please read more carefully before posting your review.

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    1. I'm not sure I understand this comment. Is it possible you were reading a different review and meant to comment on that one, then accidentally commented on this one instead? What facts did I get wrong in the review? I didn't talk about the grandmother identifying the Nazi soldier. Again, were you reading a different review?

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  2. I'm disappointed in your review, as well. I was hoping to get some sophisticated criticism of the book. First, the book is based on the true story of Simon Wiesenthal as told in his book, "The Sunflower." It is Wiesenthal, then a concentration camp prisoner, who was called to the deathbed of a Nazi SS soldier--not a Jewish "woman". Second, what made me cry wasn't any contrived plot about Sage. Rather, it was in Minka's retelling of her ghetto and concentration camp life--comprised of real events from real survivors--that had me in tears. Sorry you found it rather blasé. I found some problems with the writing (Sage's narration seemed inconsistent with her age and maturity level, for example). Well, enough said about your review.

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  3. Can you tell me if she goes into details of the concentration camps? I really cannot deal w/ that sort of thing so if she does I'd rather not read it at all. Thanks!

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