Our February Book Club pick is My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult, which tells the story of Anna, who was conceived to save her sister's life. (Click here to read the book's opening chapter.) We chatted with the author about her inspiration, her thoughts on writing and her suggestions for discussion topics.
Canadian Living: You've tackled a heavy subject in this book. Did you have any trepidation about it, or ever want to drop the project?
Jodi Picoult: No, I felt it was critically important to discuss, because stem cell research has become such a polarizing issue in America...and I wanted to bring it down to the personal level, instead of the political.
CL: What is the significance of the relationship between Julie and Campbell, which seems somewhat peripheral to the main story?
JP: Like the fool in Shakespeare, the relationship between Julia and Campbell is the moment where you, as a reader, get to take a break and breathe. The humour in these sections, when held up to the tragedy in the other sections, makes the trauma the family is suffering seem even more traumatic.
CL: How different do you think the book would be if you weren't also a mother who has experienced having a child spend time in the hospital? Or if you weren't a mother at all?
JP: Well, for one, I might not have written the book. I think this is every mother's worst nightmare -- something dreadful happening to her child. When my middle son, Jake, was five, he was diagnosed with bilateral cholesteatomas in his ears -- benign tumours that will eventually burrow into your brain and kill you, if you don't manage to catch them. He had 10 surgeries in three years, and he's tumour free now. An eleventh surgery got rid of his hearing aids. Clearly, I wasn't facing the same urgent fears that the mom of a cancer patient facesâ€¦ but it's not hard to remember how trying those hospitalizations were. Every single time I walked beside his gurney into the OR, where I would stay with him while he was anesthetized, I'd think, "Okay, just take my ear, if that keeps him from going through this again." That utter desperation and desire to make him healthy again became the heart of Sara's monologuesâ€¦ and is the reason that I cannot hate her for making the decisions she did.
CL: Are any of the characters particularly close to your heart?
JP: I really love Jesse. For some reason, he was the easiest to write -- he wears his heart on his sleeve. And Campbell's one-liners still make me laugh when I think about them.
CL: What was the most difficult part of writing this book?
JP: I went to spend time with pediatric cancer patients and their families when doing the research -- and that was devastating. The kids are great -- sunny and funny and sweet, as if they realize they don't have a lot of time and want to maximize it. But their parents -- when they let down their guard -- are just heartbreaking to listen to. The other really difficult part of the book was writing the ending. I knew what was going to happen before I wrote a single word -- but that didn't mean it wasn't devastating for me too.
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CL: Is there any message you hope people will get out of the book?
JP: Life can change in an instant; don't be so worried about the future that you forget to celebrate what you have right now.
CL: What books and authors are you inspired by?
JP: My favourite writer is Alice Hoffman; she's brilliant. One of my favourite books in recent years was Yann Martel's Life of Pi -- I wished I'd written it, which is my highest form of compliment. The book that made me want to be a writer in the first place was Gone with the Wind -- I read it and wanted to create a whole world out of words, too.
CL: If you were planning a book club discussion of your novel, what are some questions you would ask people to discuss?
1. Reread the prologue to My Sister's Keeper. Who is the speaker? Is it the same person you thought it was the first time you read it?
2. What is the metaphorical relevance of Brian's profession as a fire chief?
3. Why is Jesse's behaviour so aberrant, while until now, Anna has been so compliant?
4. What might be a possible reason for Brian's fascination with astronomy?
5. On page 98, Kate is being admitted to the hospital in very serious condition. She mouths to Jesse, "tell Anna," but is unable to finish. What do you think she was trying to say?
6. On page 122, Julia says, "Even if the law says that no one is responsible for anyone else, helping someone who needs it is the right thing to do." Who understood better how to "help" Kate, Sara or Anna?
7. Did Anna do the right thing, honouring Kate's wishes?
8. Do you feel it was unfair of Kate to ask Anna to refuse to donate a kidney, even though this seemed to be the only way for her to avoid the lifesaving transplant?
9. On page 142, Brian says that when rescuing someone from a fire, "the safety of the rescuer is of a higher priority than the safety of the victim. Always." How does this apply to his role in his own family?
10. On page 144, Brian says, "Like anything that's been confined, fire has a natural instinct to escape." How does this truth apply to Kate? to Brian himself?
11. On page 149, Brian is talking to Julia about astronomy and says, "Dark matter has a gravitational effect on other objects. You can't see it, you can't feel it, but you can watch something being pulled in its direction." How is this symbolic of Kate's illness?
12. For what reason(s) did Brian offer Anna a place to stay at the firehouse while the legal proceedings were underway?
13. How does Anna's decision to pursue medical emancipation parallel Campbell's decision to end his relationship with Julia after his accident?
14. Do you agree with Brian's decision not to turn Jesse in to the authorities for setting the fires?
15. Do you feel that it's ethical to conceive a child that meets specific genetic requirements?
16. If not, do you believe that there should be specific exceptions, such as the purpose of saving another person's life, or is this just a "slippery slope"?
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