Reviewing My Sister’s Keeper

I was looking forward to reading Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper. I was intrigued by the storyline of parents having a child to serve as a donor for their sick child. But My Sister’s Keeper was a disappointment. I have read a few of Picoult’s books; this is the one I liked the leased.

Kate Fitzgerald was diagnosed with Leukemia at the age of three. Her parents, Brian and Sarah, are so desperate to save her life that they have Anna to serve as a donor for what Kate needs. By the age of 13, Anna has undergone several painful procedures that had no pausative physical benefit to her; instead, she had them for Kate.

Having never been a parent, I can’t imagine what parents, like the Fitzgeralds, would experience. I can only guess how I would feel in their shoes. But I can’t imagine testing embryos to find out which one contained a match for a sick child, giving birth to that child knowing it was going to be a donor, and forcing that child to have procedures that only subjected that child to risk.

At the beginning of My Sister’s Keeper, I was hoping for much more detail around the ethical questions involved. Picoult skipped much of that in favor of a romance the story didn’t need and a stereotypical teenage son who turns to criminal conduct when neglected by his distracted parents.

My Sister’s Keeper had so many potential storylines, we didn’t need the trope provided by the rekindled romance between Anna’s lawyer and her court-appointed guardian. I enjoy romance, but only when the romance is needed to move the story. In this case, the romance was a distraction from plot lines that should have been pursued.

The storyline involving Jesse, the son, was also disappointing. Sure, it’s easy to imagine how a child, feeling neglected, could fall into a life of crime seeking attention. I can understand how parents could be distracted from most things when a child is constantly facing life-or-death situations. But I can’t imagine largely ignoring a child’s bad conduct as the Fitzgeralds did in this story.

When Brian discovered the extent of Jesse’s criminal conduct and chose to ignore it, I was floored. When the story ended with Jesse as a respected police officer, I was disappointed. If people knew of Jesse’s passed, he wouldn’t have been a cop. I believe in second chances but the idea that largely ignoring dangerous criminal conduct results in someone becoming an upstanding member of law enforcement is hard to accept.

The book’s ending was a shock. I certainly didn’t see it coming. Maybe because there were too many things about the book I didn’t like, but I wasn’t happy with the ending either. I hated that Anna, once again, was the one left with no dreams to chase.

I couldn’t leave this review without discussing Picoult’s uninformed treatment of people with disabilities. The book was written in 2003. So, we have to make some allowance for the passage of time and the lessons it tries to teach members of society. But Picoult’s regular usage of the word “handicapped, was kind of offensive. Her putting Kate and her boyfriend in a hospital prom for people whose illnesses meant they wouldn’t be asked to their school’s proms was not a feel-good moment for me.

Reading that part, I was reminded of my own high school experience. Everyone wanted me to go to the prom. My Italian class spent an entire class trying to get me to attend. But I knew they wanted my attendance, in part, to make them feel better about having regularly excluded me. I knew no one I would think about going with would go with me.

Previous experience taught me I would spend the night largely on my own walking around the dance by myself. It wouldn’t have been fun for me. I wasn’t going to make lifelong memories. I would have come home once again feeling alone and acutely aware of how little I fit in at school.

Still, I wouldn’t have liked a different prom. Special education isn’t special. Special proms aren’t special. Sure, some people are too sick to go out in public too often. More often than not. people with disabilities, regardless of our actual capabilities, are put in “special” things to highlight our differences and to allow people to feel like they are being supportive without forcing them to confront the fact that they don’t see us as their equal.

I know most people don’t think of it act way. But when you peal away the layers what I wrote above is more true than many can admit.

Picoult’s treatment of Campbell hiding his disability, while unfortunately accurate, lacked the points it needed. Many people who can hide their disabilities do so because they feel shame. More often than most want to admit, those people feel shame because they learn their status as a person with a disability leads to rejection–simply because they have a disability. Julia’s easy acceptance of Campbell’s disability is the thing most readers want to see–it’s not the common experience of people with disabilities. If more people without disabilities were as accepting of people with disabilities, people like Campbell would be much less likely to hide their disabilities.

Obviously, Picoult lacks the life experience to have tackled such difficult, potentially informative discussions. It makes sense that she would revert to the kinds of language and plot lines the public is used to seeing around disability. But I kept finding myself thinking Picoult’s attempt to discuss disability was a good reminder why people shouldn’t appropriate cultures and identities for the purpose of story telling when they don’t understand as much as they believe they understand.

The concept behind My Sister’s Keeper is fascinating. I wish Picoult had done the job with this storyline she has done with others.

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