Jodi Picoult: The Author Women Readers Hate to Love

Cameron Diaz and Abigail Breslin star in this adaptation of the Jodi Picoult novel about a young girl who seeks medical emancipation from her parents, who brought her into the world to keep her leukemia-stricken sister alive. Video by New Line Cinema
By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 29, 2009

The faces of the audience members leaving "My Sister's Keeper" have gone all Monet: Their features are blurred by a dewy sheen of tears smeared over cheeks and noses, they look fuzzy and far-off, as if they may never see happiness again. Why did we ever come to this movie? Why do we DO this to ourselves?

Inside the dark theater, Kleenex had been at the ready since the 15-minute mark, when on-screen a frail toddler received a spinal tap. Gasps of disbelief began around the time a lawyer insinuated that a mother didn't care about her own child. By the time the movie reached the land of the doomed teenage love affair, the soft sobs had begun. It was hard to tell exactly who started it, because every seat in the small Bethesda theater Friday night was full of rapt viewers, including at least two teenage girls uncomplainingly huddled on the aisle floor. "What is this, 'Transformers'?" a woman had hissed to her companion as they tried to find seats in the packed house before the movie.

It was not "Transformers."

It was Jodi Picoult.

Picoult, the woman responsible for all these tears, the blockbuster author whose fans call themselves the Pi-cult. Picoult, the patron saint of impossible decisions and weepy moral dilemmas, and creator of her own particular breed of horror story best described as Ovarian Gothic -- horror not of the supernatural, but of the domestic. Picoult, the woman whose books inspire fierce devotion mixed with pockets of self-loathing. Haven't heard of her? You are such a man.

"My Sister's Keeper," the movie, is based on "My Sister's Keeper," the book, and is the first Picoult novel to be adapted as a feature film. A fair number of people went to see it this weekend: It took in $12 million at the box office, about a 10th of the "Transformers" haul, but more than the broad thriller "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" or broad comedy "Year One."

The fans who trooped into theaters did so not with anticipation, in some cases, but with grim resolve, the same way that they approach her books:

"I don't know why I read her," Katie Gore moaned as she prepared to enter the late show at Regal Cinema. She's in her 20s, the median age for an audience that appears to span ages 16 to 60.

"It's like watching Lifetime," her friend Elizabeth Crowe agreed. "Why do we watch Lifetime?"

"When I finished her last book," said Jillian Hooker, "I threw it against the wall."

And then, hating themselves a little bit, they go into the theater.

This is what they watch: A child is conceived to be spare parts for her older sister, who is dying of leukemia. After 11 years of painful procedures, the girl finally balks when her parents want her to give up a kidney. She sues them for medical emancipation, ripping apart the family, which also includes a neglected brother with a learning disability. The lawyer who takes her case has a debilitating illness, and the judge overseeing the trial is recovering from the sudden death of her own middle school-age daughter.

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