Miracles occur in a New Hampshire prison after a man ends up on death row for crimes that occurred when he was a 33-year-old carpenter
Change of Heart: A Novel. By Jodi Picoult. Simon & Schuster/Atria, 447 pp., $26.95.
By Janice Harayda
Change of Heart is the best novel I’ve read in a long time about religious gobbledygook. After 15 books, Jodi Picoult still cares enough about her craft to leave most of the Da Vinci Code knockoffs behind in a cloud of incense. She’s a more careful and interesting writer than Dan Brown and at times shows an appealingly droll wit. And she has more substantive concerns than off-the-wall ecclesiastical conspiracies, including the case for abolishing the death penalty. Picoult is also a conscientious researcher. For this book she visited a lethal-injection chamber and, when she needed to learn about the Gnostic Gospels, got private tutorials from Elaine Pagels, one of the country’s foremost scholars on the subject.
But in Change of Heart Picoult serves up characters with some peculiar traits or, rather, non-traits. They live in New Hampshire, but none has a credible New Hampshire accent or other characteristics that reflect the state or even New England — they might as well live in Nebraska. The oddest character is a 33-year-old carpenter who is sentenced to death for murdering a young girl and a policeman, then performs apparent miracles in a state prison. Shay Bourne cures the sick, brings a dead bird to life and feeds seven men with one piece of Bazooka bubble gum. Halfway through the book, you’re wondering what he could do it they ever ran low on the spelt bread and tilapia at Whole Foods. Bourne also wants to donate his heart after his execution to the gravely ill sister of the girl he killed. To do this, he needs to persuade a court that his religion requires such an action. And that effort pits him at different times against the mother of the dead child, a priest who has a crisis of faith, and a female lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union whose only recent dates have been court dates. All of them run a footrace against time his scheduled execution approaches.
Behind all of this lies a larger question than whether Bourne will be able donate his heart to a girl who needs it: What is a religion? Picoult treats traditional faiths respectfully. But one of her themes surfaces in the words of an inmate with AIDS: “Religion was supposed to be a blanket drawn up to your chin to keep you warm, a promise that when it came to the end, you wouldn’t die alone – but it could just as easily leave you shivering out in the cold if what you believed became more important than the fact that you believed.”
Change of Heart has many lines that one that are so vague that they could be used to justify almost any kind of religious hokum. And in age of anything-goes spirituality, that may help to explain why the book sped to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Picoult has cross-bred three popular genres — the courtroom drama, the religious thriller and the romance novel — in package much easier to digest than the arcana of The Da Vinci Code as long as you don’t expect too much plausibility from the plot. A telling scene occurs near the end of the book when a doctor suggests to the priest and the civil-liberties lawyer that they call the governor in an effort to break an impasse in Bourne’s case. When they don’t respond, he says, “Well, isn’t that what happens on TV? And in John Grisham novels?” You might think that Picoult is engaging in bit of self-satire here, signaling her intention to take her plot in a direction Grisham wouldn’t, but two pages later, her characters are breezing through the metal detectors at the statehouse.
Best line: Maggie Bloom notes that having a body wrap requires her to disrobe and pay a stranger to handle her body: “Was it just me, or was there a great deal that spa treatments had in common with prostitution?” Then why have the wrap? “The problem was, you never heard anyone say, ‘Wow, check out the brain on that babe.’”
Worst line: Convicted murderer Shay Bourne explains why he doesn’t go to church: “Not that Jesus wasn’t a really cool guy – great teacher, excellent speaker, yadda yadda yadda. But … Son of God? Where’s the proof?” Later, after a correctional officer survives a deadly assault by an inmate, a priest asks a doctor: “You don’t think it’s possible that Mr. Smythe was … well … resurrected?”
Published: March 2008 www.jodipicoult.com
One-Minute book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.