Donus Roberts | Book Look
Sometimes it is better to suspend pre-conceived plans and strike out with a replacement.
A similar circumstance happened to me as I started to read a book about which I planned to write this January column. After the first 100 pages, I lamented that I would have to write a negative review and thus waste the time of readers.
I decided on a different path — a new book. In the past I have read several Jodi Picoult novels, but none recently. I thought it was time to read another, her latest, “Wish You Were Here” turned out to be a convincing read.
Jodi Picoult has been an American writer, specializing in family relationships, since the late 1980s. Her most famous novel is likely “My Sister’s Keeper.” There are over 40 million copies of her books in print. Lesser-known information is that she has written several issues of “Wonder Woman,” as well as the fact that she has degrees from both Harvard and Princeton.
Most novelists have tried to find ways to avoid the COVID pandemic, but in “Wish You Were Here,” Jodi found a way to both memorialize it and make sense of it.
Picoult says that she struggled on how to make a novel do justice to COVID-19 until she heard the true story of a Japanese tourist that ended up stranded in Machu Picchu due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Instead of going home to Japan, the tourist, named Jesse Katayama, wound up staying in the gateway community for months.
Picoult knew she could not write of Machu Picchu because she had never been there, but she had been to the Galapagos Islands. She found a young Scottish man who had been trapped in the Galapagos during the first months of the COVID outbreak, interviewed him, and the story had its rudder.
The novel’s protagonist, Diana O’Toole, is a very complex person. Her parents worked in the world of art and Diana was often left at home while they traveled. Diana decided that she wanted a career with less traveling so she went to work in the art auction world, essentially convincing rich people with valuable art to sell it to the highest bidder.
In fact, Diana was a super planner, a person who believed she could chart her future. So, she charted her marriage by age 30, house and children by 35, travel to specific places, earning plenty of money, and then retirement. She and her boyfriend Finn, who is currently on his surgery residency, are on perfect track to complete her plan.
A component of her plan is a vacation to the Galapagos Islands with her boyfriend Finn. Then came March 13, 2020, the pandemic. The hospital tells Finn that he will not be allowed to leave the hospital for a vacation because of the impending pandemic.
The vacation has already been paid for, so Finn convinces Diana to go on the vacation without him. Since the vacation is in Diana’s plan, she agrees.
Upon her arrival, she is told that the Island will shut down for two weeks. Her luxury accommodations are canceled, but most of all she has to find a way to get by on an island that does not have stable Wi-Fi or dependable cell service. That she is on the island where Darwin formed his theory of evolution by natural selection soon loses its mystic. She is the only tourist on Isabela Island.
Although Diana does interface with some locals, which is a story by itself, she had a lonely existence without phone or internet. She begins to re-evaluate her life, her relationships, choices and herself, wondering when she returns home if she will be the same person.
She wonders why she found the “things” in her life so valuable. She confronted her “control freak” personality as two weeks evolved into months.
Roughly during this same period of time in the United States, my wife Lovila and I were hospitalized with COVID. In the long recovery process, we asked ourselves many of the same questions Diana asked herself, isolated on Isabela Island.
If this sketch were the full book, it would be interesting but not compelling. At this point the reader will encounter a huge plot twist that will literally turn Diana (and the reader) inside out and backward.
This novel may rival the fame of “My Sister’s Keeper,” which has been read by literally millions of people worldwide. The movie rights for “Wish You Were Here” has already been sold to Netflix. I count myself lucky to have found this novel as a replacement date for a novel that did not fit me.
“Wish You Were Here” by Jodi Picoult, Ballantine Books, 321 pages, 2021, $28.99.
For February, I plan to review “A Natural History of the Future” by Rob Dunn.
Donus Roberts is a former teacher, current advisor to the ABC Book Club, an avid reader/collector of books, owner of DDR Books. He encourages reader contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.