I’ve been a fan of Picoult’s for a long time. The social issues she tackles. Her productivity. Her fierce commitment to research as well as to character and story. I’ve often said that I see her as a kind of Dickens of our time: an author who makes us look, unflinchingly, at the big moral questions facing us today.
In 2008, I invited Picoult to speak to five hundred girls and staff at a boarding school in the UK, when she was on tour. At the time, I was an English teacher and Housemistress and spent every holiday (and early mornings before the girls got up), writing. I longed to be published. A few years later, now a published author in my own right, I went to see her at a book signing with my firstborn, Tennessee Skye. She was promoting a book she had written with her daughter, Samantha Van Leer. It felt particularly special that she was doing a signing in Waterstones, Reading, where I’ve launched ever one of my books. That same year, when I created my author website, I asked her for an interview to go on the front page and she graciously obliged. Then, in Fall 2017, we bumped into each other, quite by coincidence, in a juice bar in Concord, New Hampshire, where I now live. I was sitting, writing, pregnant with my second little girl, and she came in to meet her eldest son who was working on the democratic campaign shortly before the election. Picoult also lives in New Hampshire.
So, our lives have criss-crossed quite a bit and her books have accompanied me through my writing journey. My own stories and style are quite different. I have a more English voice, my writing is a little quirkier, it lends itself a little more to the magical, is perhaps gentler than some of Picoult’s hard hitting court-room dramas, but I also love to tackle the big issues and I to write from multiple-points of view. I think we share the belief that no story has just one angle.
It took me a while to get to Small Great Things. I’m always a little wary of book hype. I like to take some distance from the reviews and literary chatter about a particular novel so that I can read it on my own terms. So, just as Picoult is about to launch her next novel, I finally sat down to read what has been called her best book yet.
I’m not sure about best, that’s subjective, but I certainly feel that it’s her post powerful and most relevant novel. As with all good novelists, she was ahead of the curve. She wrote a story about race and the polarity in American political life before she even knew that Trump would win the election. Or perhaps she knew that too.
The premise of the book, as with so many of her stories which tackle social issues, is brilliantly conceived. A black labor and delivery nurse is asked to refrain from caring for the newborn baby of a white supremacist couple. And then, through a tragic series of events, the baby dies and the nurse is put on trial. What I admire more than this premise, which is the catapult to a fantastic drama, is Picoult’s courage in adopting such a challenging point of view. The story is told from the perspective of Ruth, the black nurse, the nurse’s lawyer, Kennedy and – this is the courageous part – the white supremacist father, Turk. It’s his chapters which left me breathless with amazement. Without excusing or justifying his views, Picoult totally inhabits his world and does justice to the emotions of a father who has lost a son, quite apart from his political convictions. Her research is impeccable. She spoke to many white supremacists, some of them reformed, others not, about their lives and their politics. More than the research, however, I admired Picoult’s wisdom, insight and her ability to inhabit a life utterly different from her own.
Picoult is often dismissed as a commercial writer. She is rarely taught in English classrooms and she does not receive big literary prizes. But that’s just to do with how the publishing industry is organised. There are the literary writers on one side and the best-selling commercial writers on the other and it’s hard to cross that divide. The truth is that Picoult was educated at Princeton and Harvard and when I first met her in 2008, I immediately felt her fierce intelligence and her rigorous commitment to her work. In other words, just because she is popular and successful does not mean that her writing is not brilliant. Dickens, who I mentioned before, had his writing serialised in newspapers. He was a populist writer. And yet we now see revere him as one of our towering literary figures.
I’ve mentioned before, I still believe, passionately, that fiction is more important now than ever.
In a world in which the press is so full of bias and polarities, and so unable to convey nuance; a world in which the personal and political landscape is fractured; a world in which many are hurting so badly that it is almost impossible to find the strength to understand the other, fiction allows us a gentle, safe space in which to explore lives different from our own.
Picoult’s prose is fast-paced and energetic and she is brilliant at court-room scenes and effortless in her use of legal and medical jargon. It’s a good story, well told. But more than this, the story serves our times. Her writing is a form of social justice.
Picoult deserves all the praise in the world for this courageous, intelligent and compassionate book.