Saturday, July 7, 2012
Book Review: Salem Falls, Jodi Picoult
I've never read Picoult before because I am always wary of novels which seem to be About a Topic (capitals intentional there). As in, this novel is About Autism. This novel is About School Shootings. This novel is About Child Abduction. This wariness is a clear result of my thoughts on artful fiction, what it should do, and how it works. I think fiction should arise from discovery and exploration, and little red flags go up for me when I see that a novel is about something specific that we could just as easily be reading in a news magazine. A novel About Adultery seems to me like a very different thing than a novel with betrayal as a theme. I suspect the first of being forcibly made into a story about one particular thing because it is topical; I believe the second has a better chance of arising through writerly discovery. Either book could be terrible. And either book might be very good, I suppose, which is why I decided to give Picoult a try.
I chose carefully, picking a novel I had heard nothing about and whose topic sounded interesting to me. And I tried to read with an open mind. What I found in Salem Falls was better than I expected it to be, but still left me pretty cold.
The novel is the story of Jack St. Bride, who spent eight months in jail as part of plea bargain when an infatuated sixteen-year-old girl on the soccer team he coached claimed they were having a sexual affair. Jack is innocent, and we are never led to suspect otherwise. When he arrives in Salem Falls just after being released from jail, he finds a job at a diner and tentatively begins a relationship with the diner's owner. That Jack is a sexual offender makes its way around town, and a group of fathers in town make it their business to make it clear to Jack (through vandalism and personal violence) that Jack is not welcome. Eventually Jack is accused of rape by one of the town's teenage girls, a girl who readers already know is mad at Jack (for failing to show a sexual interest in her), craves attention, and was almost certainly high at the time of the alleged rape. The book then becomes a courtroom drama, with a lot of focus on gathering evidence and the presentation of the case in court.
Picoult writes pretty well. Sentences are clear and coherent, the story pulls one along, there are few of the kinds of tics that suggest a writer is not taking care with the craft, and the aspects of the story which probably required research ring true enough. But there is a tendency to overwrite and to over-sentimentalize. Honest, every action doesn't require a simile describing it, especially not if those similes try to give the actions meaning they don't deserve. And scars don't form in the shape of hearts on girls whose hearts have been trampled. Come on.
There were a lot of moments like those, those moments where I thought, "This is manipulation. I'm being told to feel something here, not being allowed to discover a truth along with the writer." I have little patience for that sort of thing, but other problems I had with the novel were probably even more important. These characters were cardboard; there was no complexity to them at all. Not one of them did a single thing that furthered the reader's understanding of the character or of the situation they found themselves in. Everyone behaved as expected; nothing ever asked the reader to stretch for meaning or growth. And that is almost disturbing in a novel whose main focus is a man being destroyed by people who can't seem to conceive of things being not the way they appear.
At about the two-thirds mark, I started asking myself what the the point of this book might be. I'll admit to being fairly well engaged--I wanted to know what would happen, I wanted to see if the story would come out the way it should or if injustice would prevail. And if making me want to turn the pages to find out What next? is all the novel was trying to do, well, then, I'd say it succeeds. But the flap of Salem Falls claims that Picoult's novels demonstrate "'a firm grasp of the delicacy and complexity of human relationships.'" That being the case, I would expect to discover something by reading the book. The novel tells me (and even, maybe, in some instances, shows me) that teenage girls sometimes become infatuated with older men; that such infatuation can lead to trouble, not least because teenage girls often don't have the maturity to deal with their infatuation or understand the full ramifications of acting on them; that good people tend to believe the worst about people who have been labeled as "bad"; that fathers protect their daughters, sometimes to the point of blindness toward their daughters themselves. Okay. Agreed. But I'd have agreed before I read word one of the novel; the story doesn't help me see anything new about any of this, doesn't help me understand any of it better or more fully. And without an arrival at some better or fuller understanding, I sort of feel like Salem Falls is just rolling around in Statutory Rape and False Accusations and Witch Hunts in order to pick up the emotions already associated with those topics and pass them on without adding anything worthwhile to the mix.
This review originally appeared on my LibraryThing account.