It’s a while since I’ve reviewed a book – unlike my theatre reviews, I don’t have a professional sideline in the field any more, and with writing about & watching a lot of television and radio as well as numerous theatre trips, my recreational reading is much less frequent than it has been, or should be.
I have, however, utilised the time I spend walking and/or commuting with a subscription to Audible.co.uk, which gives me a credit for one new audiobook every month. My most recent ‘purchase’ under this scheme has been Sing You Home by American author Jodi Picoult.
It’s the first of the author’s books I’ve either read or listened to, having been spurred on to investigate after seeing her do the rounds of UK daytime TV shows while I was off work ill last month. I’m glad I did, because it’s a fascinating literary look at some contemporary issues that, while maybe not bringing too much to the table for someone who’s been aware of (and at times immersed in) LGBT politics for years, demonstrate to a wider audience just what’s at stake in allowing gay and lesbian couples the same rights that straight couples automatically enjoy.
Zoë is a music therapist who, along with her husband Max, has been trying to have a baby for the best part of a decade. When what seems to finally be a successful pregnancy ends in a tragic stillbirth, the pressure contributes to the break-up of their marriage. While grieving both her baby and her marriage, Zoë finds solace in a friendship with school guidance counsellor Vanessa. When that relationship blossoms into love and the new couple seek to use Zoë’s remaining frozen embryos to try and start a family, they must fight Max, who has the legal backing of his evangelical church and their well-funded lawyers.
As you can imagine from that brief précis, issues of LGBT marriage, partnership rights and adoption dominate the novel, along with the moral question of how to treat frozen, fertilised embryos after the parents have divorced. Should they be dealt with under property law or, as Max’s legal team argue, as “pre-birth children”? While we’re always encouraged to take Zoë and Vanessa’s side, it is the sensitivity with which Max and his brother and sister-in-law, who he wants to donate the unused embryos to, that encourages the reader to really engage, to not blithely accept one side of the argument.
It’s a shame, then, that the religious and legal people backing Max up aren’t necessarily afforded the same well-roundedness. There’s a certain simplicity to their presentation which at times feels out of place compared to the quality of characterisation elsewhere. One scene in particular rankles, as Vanessa walks into a courtroom gents to confront Max’s lawyer. It’s a classic piece of wish fulfilment, as she pours out refutations to his most basic homophobic statements, leaving him tongue-tied, as if he’s never heard her points before and has no comeback. In real life, the life that Picoult elsewhere makes us experience almost viscerally, nothing is ever that simple and clear-cut, so that scene for me rings particularly hollow.
That aside, though, it’s a thought-provoking and, at times, incredibly moving read. To tie in with Zoë’s career as a music therapist, there is a soundtrack CD (available for free download) to accompany the book, containing a series of original songs thematically matching the plot inserted at various points (in the audiobook, they’re part of the audio recording). I didn’t really feel they added that much to the experience, breaking up the flow of the story rather than enhancing it. I guess if you listened to the tracks in the background while continuing to read, your experience might be different.
As I say, this is the first of Picoult’s novels that I’ve read. After this one, I could quite see myself reading others, but she hasn’t won me over completely.