Imprisoned by a Knotty Plot

By Donna Rifkind,
who reviews regularly for Book World
Wednesday, March 19, 2008


By Jodi Picoult

Atria. 447 pp. $26.95

Shay Bourne is a prisoner on death row, convicted of killing a little girl and her stepfather. With the help of an ACLU lawyer and a sympathetic priest, Shay spends his last weeks petitioning to donate his heart to the sister of the girl he murdered, an 11-year-old who suffers from pediatric dilated cardiomyopathy. At the same time, prison officers and inmates claim that Shay has been performing miracles, turning tap water into wine, curing a fellow prisoner of AIDS, resuscitating a dead bird. Crowds of faithful citizens gather outside the prison, some noisily insisting that Shay, a 33-year-old former carpenter, is the Messiah, others denouncing the notion. Shay's execution, by lethal injection, will be the first to take place in New Hampshire in 69 years. Will it be an act of justice for a murderer, or a cruel and unusual punishment for a holy man? Will Shay's offer of his heart save a little girl and thereby redeem his crimes?

Yes, folks, if you haven't already guessed, we've landed squarely in the middle of a Jodi Picoult novel, her 15th book in about as many years. All the familiar elements of the stupendously popular author's protocol are here: a piling on of Big Issues (the ethics of organ donation and the death penalty, plus prisoners' rights, and some lively religious conflicts), a rotating cast of narrators, intimate tours inside prisons and hospitals and a lengthy courtroom showdown.

Picoult, as her legions of fans know, is a painstaking researcher and a stickler for airtight plots. She travels often from her New Hampshire home to explore her books' locales (Alaska in "The Tenth Circle," Amish country in "Plain Truth"), and routinely consults all kinds of experts -- lawyers, doctors, prison wardens, theologians -- to help add verisimilitude to her hot-button modern morality tales.

I admire Picoult for being so reliably and unapologetically what she is: a hardworking, deft and sometimes inspired formula novelist. While her methods remain consistent, though, her grueling publishing schedule more or less guarantees a range of quality. Some of her books are just not going to be as good as others. Her latest novel is a good example of how an often winning formula can go awry.

Picoult's story lines are always complex, and "Change of Heart" reaches a kind of quintessence of plot overload. Here, she requires the reader to accept that Shay Bourne's adult heart could be the perfect match for a dying young girl; that her mother might forgive the man who killed her husband and older daughter enough to entertain his offer to donate his heart; and that the laws requiring Shay to die through lethal injection might be challenged in a courtroom, since this method of execution would render his heart unusable for transplant.

Okay, we'll go along with this. But of course there's a lot more. It turns out that the priest who is Shay's spiritual adviser just happened to serve on the jury that convicted Shay 11 years ago and voted for capital punishment. This guilty secret causes Father Michael much anguish about death-penalty morality, particularly after he catches Shay reciting from the Gnostic Gospels (texts the near-illiterate prisoner couldn't possibly know), and he begins to wonder, along with the crowds camping outside the prison, whether Shay might indeed be the Messiah.

Even at this point, the reader is still dutifully following along as each chapter concludes with a thumpingly triumphant cliffhanger that reveals more just-this-side-of-plausible details. Picoult's indulgent plotting has worked well in previous books: "Keeping Faith," which shares some thematic elements and also a few characters with "Change of Heart," was a satisfyingly excessive example. What's different about this new book is that Picoult has sacrificed her characters for the plot and its attendant ethical dilemmas.

Some of those characters, the ones who take turns narrating the action, are distinguished in the book by different typefaces. At times it seems as though the font variations (a Picoult trademark) are all that's noteworthy about these people. Maggie Bloom, the ACLU lawyer who argues in court that Shay should be executed by hanging rather than by lethal injection in order to preserve his heart, is a thoroughgoing stereotype: She's fat, she's single, she's smart but hates herself, she's a disappointment to her mother, and on and on. Shay, we understand, is supposed to be something of a mystery, but most of the round-robin narrators -- Father Michael, an inmate with HIV named Lucius, and Maggie -- are unjustifiably sketchy. Only June Nealon, the dying girl's mother, exhibits enough nuance to seem believable.

Sensational but not surprising, "Change of Heart" manages to lose its humanity in a maelstrom of life-and-death issues.

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