Book review: The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult

I was always afraid to read Jodi Picoult’s books. Thanks to an Oprah’s Book Club review and interview with Picoult of My Sister’s Keeper, giving me the impression that I would never emotionally recover from her stories. I mean, if Oprah was scarred or had some deep wound brutally ripped open, I didn’t think I’d stand a chance.

Fast forward to social distancing and quarantine days and TBR lists pile up like we’re in a pandemic or something.

The Book of Two Ways was not in any way a book of trauma as it was food for thought in that most delicious, lingering way after you clicked to the last page on your kindle.

The story

Dawn is a death doula, someone who helps people transition through death. It is a thing apparently, though as one can imagine it doesn’t pay grandly. She is supported by her science professor husband whom she met at a hospice by a twist of fate, when both her mother and his grandmother were on their deathbeds.

Dawn had been a budding Egyptologist before she met Brian and had a daughter, Meret, with him. She had also been in love with someone else, someone she sees flashing before her eyes when she thinks she is about to die in a plane crash.

An urge to return to a turning point in her life overwhelms her as questions nag and haunt her. What if I had made different choices? What person would I have been? Had I made a mistake?

Themes, characters and drawbacks

Questions like these will prompt readers into a one-click ebook purchase. Especially since we’re spending more time online these days.

This kicks off the story as we follow her in two different timelines or parallel universes. As a child I dreamed of being an archaeologist, imagining myself at the tombs of Egypt or somewhere else equally mesmerising and steeped in history. Consider this a fair warning: the novel doesn’t hold back on academic information and there were moments I skipped ahead the textbook details to get to the story-line. It just felt like too much information to dig through.

Besides Egyptology the story is rooted in themes of Quantum Physics, parallel universes, and the afterlife, playing scientific concepts against art and spirituality like an ideological ping pong match. Perhaps in some parallel universe another me is happily spending days under the Egyptian sun uncovering hidden artefacts.

Beneath all of these, is a unifying theme of love. Is it a choice or a feeling?

Plot and prose

Picoult spins prose so beautiful I regret not picking up her books earlier. Her words are raw and cut to nerve and bone. Like philosophical non-poetry, you repeat certain phrases now and then to feel it and let its wisdom and beauty sink into you.

I quote Brian’s character, “…Say you’re a passenger on a plane whose engines fail and you’re about to crash and die, should you take solace in the fact that there are other versions of you out there somewhere, that will live on? Or the inverse: should you feel worse knowing that there’s a version of you whose life is a disaster – a you that flunked out of school or became a criminal or got bitterly dumped and divorced…”

Why have I not ever considered that in another universe I didn’t turn out to be a homeless, rum-addicted pirate holed up in a cave on some God-knows-where deserted island? What makes us choose to mourn the lost opportunities and not rejoice in the disasters we possibly avoided?

When she writes about the mysteries of life that we never seem to have the answers to, she evokes a sense of wonder at how big, bright and brilliant the universe really is.

Dawn can easily be seen as a saint because of her dedication to her clients, though she’ll be first to admit that she isn’t. She does things that I don’t like, but on the whole she is just doing her best with the curve balls pitched her way, in a world without answers.

The plot leans by the tiniest degree towards literary style. It’s not fast-cars-space-monkeys-alien-murders action. It isn’t quite women’s fiction either. The entire story gave me the impression of abstract art, a painting of human life and love. Just like the story one of Dawn’s clients, Win related to her of performing artists Ulay and Abramovic whose works are entrenched in the idea of life reflecting art and art reflecting life, Picoult cunningly does the same.

Why you should read it

The Book of Two Ways will stir deep questions you knew you always had but were too afraid to acknowledge. And like all good art, it invites you in as a participant to find your own answers to those mysteries of Life.

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