THE TENTH CIRCLE
By Jodi Picoult
Atria. 387 pp. $26
Drivers crossing the Maine border are greeted by a sign proclaiming "Maine: The Way Life Should Be." Readers approaching the same territory in Jodi Picoult's new novel, The Tenth Circle , should be warned "Maine: The Way Life Really Is."
Picoult, whose 12 previous books include the bestsellers Vanishing Acts and My Sister's Keeper , spins fast-paced tales of family dysfunction, betrayal and redemption, often set in northern New England (she lives in New Hampshire). The Tenth Circle , a grimly entertaining if overplotted tale of a Bethel, Maine, family blasted apart by the teenage daughter's date rape, hews closely to the concerns of Picoult's earlier work.
Fourteen-year-old Trixie is the much-loved only child of Daniel and Laura Stone. Daniel is an artist for Marvel Comics. Laura is a prominent Dante scholar at (fictional) Monroe College. They seem like one of those mismatched couples whose marriage triumphantly defies the odds -- Laura the straitlaced scholar, Daniel the former Alaskan wild man who cleaned up to become a full-time father once Trixie was born.
And Trixie? Bright, loving, sensitive Trixie is the dream child who, overnight, becomes every parent's nightmare. At the beginning of her freshman year, she has a prized older boyfriend -- Jason, a high school hockey champion. But when The Tenth Circle opens, Jason has just broken up with her. Not altogether unkindly, as it turns out, but the split devastates Trixie. Weeks afterward, still reeling from the rejection, Trixie rushes from her psych class to vomit in the girls' bathroom. She begins cutting herself, first with a broken mirror and then with her father's razor.
Parents of teenage children will shudder at how her best friend Zephyr tries to cheer her up: She hosts a party while her mother is out of town, complete with alcohol, drugs and sex games. Picoult's depiction of these rites of contemporary adolescence is exceptional: unflinching, unjudgmental, utterly chilling. Jason is at the party, too. After most of the other guests have left, they begin a game of strip poker. Trixie, desperate to win him back, seems happy to play along, until things go too far, and Jason rapes her.
This event and its immediate aftermath are the most powerful parts of the novel. As Picoult notes, one in six American women will be the victim of a rape or attempted rape during her lifetime. Those who have survived a sexual assault will recognize Trixie's subsequent dissociation, the cold horror of the emergency room and police interview, the sense of a life being irrevocably broken, as well as the rage and guilt of Trixie's parents. Trixie accuses Jason of rape, but when her name is leaked to local media, she's ostracized and tormented by her schoolmates, who accuse her of having been a willing participant.
If Picoult had retained this tight focus on Trixie's experience, The Tenth Circle might have had the power of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones or Rosellen Brown's Before And After . Instead, the novel veers off into an increasingly implausible chain of events. Jason plunges from a bridge, but did he fall or was he pushed? Trixie is under suspicion; so is her father. Trixie runs away, to the same remote village in Alaska where her father grew up, and her desperate parents follow.
Two of Picoult's books have been adapted for Lifetime Channel movies. In its latter pages, The Tenth Circle seems to have been written with one (or both) eyes on the TV screen. The book becomes mired in whimsical, fleeting, TV-ready moments -- the police detective's potbellied pig; a description of Sorrow Soup; Trixie's hiding in a truck loaded with cattle; and her melancholy pre-Christmas visit to Santa's Village, en route to Alaska. And for a reader in a post-9/11 world, it defies belief that a 14-year-old girl could fly cross-country without benefit of a photo ID.
Illustrated pages (by artist Dustin Weaver) are interspersed throughout The Tenth Circle to show Daniel's work on the graphic novel that gives the novel its name, a too-neat takeoff on Dante's Circles of Hell. But the pictures seem intrusive, a blatant attempt to cash in on the current graphic novel craze. (And if that's not enough, there's also a secret message hidden in the illustrated pages.) Still, Picoult manages some touching scenes near the end, when Trixie is befriended by a Yup'ik boy her own age. One wishes Picoult had trusted her considerable gifts for understatement and wry humor, as when Zephyr and Trixie discuss the possibility of an afterlife:
" 'I wonder if it's like it is here. If there are popular dead people and geeky dead people. You know.' That sounded like high school, and the way Trixie figured it, that was more likely to be hell."
This sounds like the real thing, and not mere wistful longing for The Way Life Should Be. ·
Elizabeth Hand is the author of seven novels and the forthcoming collection "Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories." She lives in Maine.