This is not the Jodi Picoult novel to convert those people in your life who think that Jodi Picoult novels are basically Lifetime Channel movies broken up by chapters instead of commercial breaks. This is the Jodi Picoult novel to reach for only when those sneering smarties are out of eyeshot and you just can’t wait another year or so for the next, possibly really good Jodi Picoult novel to come along.
“Sing You Home” is chockablock full of the formulaic twists that have made women’s weepies so derided-yet-irresistible both onscreen and in print. Virtually each and every new paragraph brings revelations about infertility, cancer, sexual awakening, divorce, infidelity, custody fights and child molestation. Throw in a climax in which an army of born-again Christians is pitted against a lesbian married couple in the requisite courtroom scene, and you’ve got the perfect easy reading for a mental-health day. What you don’t have, unfortunately, is the sense of authenticity and intelligence that Picoult has brought to some of her other, much better novels such as “House Rules” and “Change of Heart.”
This time around, her heroine is a shy, melancholy woman named Zoe Baxter. Zoe works as a music therapist who tries to reach her clients — autistic children, senior citizens with dementia — through the magic of melody and words. She and her husband, Max, who’s an alcoholic landscaper, have been trying to have a baby for years. After many miscarriages, it seems as though their most fervent wish is about to be granted when, suddenly, Zoe loses the baby at 28 weeks. After slowly picking herself up from this devastating loss, she wants to try yet another round of ruinously expensive IVF treatments. Max refuses. Exhausted in spirit and wallet, he announces that he wants a divorce. He then becomes a convert to the ultra-conservative Eternal Glory Church.
After falling in love with a counselor at one of the schools she visits, the newly single Zoe unexpectedly becomes a “convert” (save the e-mails: metaphorical license!) to lesbianism. Zoe and her younger (and presumably more fertile) partner and soon-to-be wife, Vanessa, decide that they want to use the frozen embryos that she and Max had stockpiled in order to have a baby. Thus ensues a media circus and the hellfire and brimstone of a court battle.
Picoult is known as an “issues” novelist, and that abbreviated list of plot highlights should make the uninitiated understand why. In addition to being an unflagging storyteller, she has a gift for inserting readers deep inside the heads and hearts of characters stuck in impossibly tight jams. What especially distinguished her previous novel, “House Rules,” was the arresting realism of her main characters’ voices: a teenager with Asperger’s syndrome and his overwhelmed, loving mother.
Picoult similarly hands over the storytelling duties in “Sing You Home” to a number of narrators: Zoe, Vanessa and Max (among others) have their say on issues such as same-sex marriage and the existence of God. But the voices and views in this tale don’t transport readers anywhere new. For instance, here’s Vanessa reflecting on her early awareness of her sexual orientation and the social consequences of being regarded as different:
“I could look back with twenty-twenty vision and see that I never had boundaries with my female friends. I wanted to see their baby pictures and listen to their favorite songs and fix my hair the same way they fixed theirs. . . . I could never quite get enough, but I never let myself ask what ‘enough’ really was.
“Believe me, being gay is not a choice. No one would choose to make life harder than it has to be, and no matter how confident and comfortable a gay person is, he or she can’t control the thoughts of others. I’ve had people move out of my row in a movie theater if they see me holding hands with a woman — apparently disgusted by our public display of affection when, one row behind us, a teenage couple is practically undressing each other.”
Vanessa’s confessional remarks read as if they’re from a high school health textbook with a chapter on “Understanding Your Gay or Lesbian Loved One.” Nothing much is risked; nothing fresh is illuminated — that’s the feel of much of “Sing You Home.” It’s a lightly entertaining melodrama, which skims through and then wraps up some messy dilemmas. But this “song” is flat.
Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.