Jodi Picoult fans know the ingredients that go into her meticulously researched bestsellers: a tragedy ripped from the headlines, a normal day that suddenly goes awry, a cast of characters with more layers than a mille-feuille, and a few curveballs and reach-for-the-tissues moments, all polished off with a tidy ending. In “A Spark of Light,” the queen of ethical-dilemma fiction sticks to her dependable recipe, this time tackling the hot-button issue of abortion.
In Picoult’s novel (as in real life), there is only one women’s health clinic that provides abortions in Mississippi. The fictional version, simply called the Center, is squat, “like an old bulldog used to guarding its territory,” and when the book opens, it’s in the throes of a hostage crisis. A disturbed gunman named George Goddard, whose daughter visited the Center for an abortion, has shown up to “exact a price,” opening fire and killing and gravely injuring several people.
The characters range from the African American traveling abortion provider Dr. Louie Ward (based, according to Picoult, on the obstetrician-gynecologist Willie Parker), who found his calling after his mother died after a botched abortion, to an antiabortion activist pretending to be pregnant so she can gather intelligence; there’s also an older woman who simply came in for a checkup and 15-year-old Wren, who arrived with her Aunt Bex to obtain a birth control prescription. The people locked inside are there for very different reasons but are quickly banded together by crisis.
They are the soul of a book that’s also about father-daughter relationships. George is not the only one motivated by his child. Outside, seasoned hostage negotiator Hugh McElroy is trying to keep the crisis from escalating further by following “the primary rule of hostage negotiation: Don’t f--- it up” — but his job becomes more personal when he learns that his daughter Wren and his older sister are inside the Jackson clinic.
There is also a subplot unfolding in Oxford, where a 17-year-old girl who had an abortion with drugs bought online is facing the legal consequences, handcuffed in a hospital bed, accused of murdering her 16-week-old fetus. Look at what might happen if abortion becomes illegal, Picoult seems to say as she details the stringent laws in Mississippi that led the girl to go to such lengths.
But the main action takes place at the Center and, in a new-to-Picoult twist, unravels in reverse. The first chapter takes place at 5 p.m., with each subsequent chapter moving back an hour until we reach 8 a.m. The literary device won’t resonate with everyone, as the mystery of who makes it out alive is almost completely revealed, but it is a creative way to divulge the characters’ backstories, why they evolved the way they did and how they ended up in the Center on the wrong day.
Though the central issue of the book is the abortion debate, Picoult also manages to touch on gun control and racism. Dr. Ward remarks that “so many of the women he met who were seeking abortions were, like him, southerners of color,” and points out that the “waiting period to get an abortion was longer than the waiting period to get a gun.”
No Picoult story is complete without characters representing both sides of a polarizing issue, something she has done for decades. Her 2011 tome “Sing You Home” was criticized for turning her characters on the religious right into caricatures, but she has clearly taken the comments to heart. Those in the antiabortion faction in “A Spark of Light” are as three-dimensional as those on the other side.
“Did all babies deserve to be born? Did all women deserve to make decisions about their own bodies? In what Venn diagram did those overlap?” A woman who has just had an abortion asks herself those difficult questions while she’s being cared for by the antiabortion protester she will forever be linked to. It’s one of many instances in which Picoult’s characters see past the beliefs that pit them against one another. “You make it very hard to hate you,” an antiabortion protester says to Dr. Ward after they break bread together. “That’s the point, brother,” he replies.
“Laws are black and white. The lives of women are a thousand shades of gray,” Picoult writes in her author’s note. And that is exactly what she shows us, imbuing her characters — male and female, antiabortion and abortion rights advocates — with more shades of gray than a Pantone color wheel. Timely, balanced and certain to inspire debate, “A Spark of Light” is Picoult at her fearless best.
Karin Tanabe, a former Politico reporter, is the author of four novels, including her latest, “The Diplomat’s Daughter.”
By Jodi Picoult. Ballantine. 384 pp. $28.99