Hardcover: 480 pages
Publisher: Ballantine Books; First Edition edition (October 11, 2016)
Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.5 inches
I’m still not sure how I ended up reading the novel Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult–perhaps I saw a Pinterest mention or an Amazon recommendation. And although I initially was intrigued when I began this book, I ended up sorely disappointed.
Without giving away any spoilers, I can tell you that Small Great Things is set in modern-day New York City, and told from three very distinct first-person points of view: Ruth’s, Turk’s, and Kennedy’s. Ruth is a black registered nurse working in a hospital’s labor and delivery wing. Turk is a white supremacist whose baby is born and then later dies on Ruth’s watch. Finally, Kennedy is a white public defender who represents Ruth in the ensuing legal tangle. As you probably can guess, racial prejudice is the dominant theme in Small Great Things.
In the first half of this novel, I was caught up in the three main characters and their dichotomous backgrounds, especially Ruth’s and Turk’s. The initial moments when the paths of these three characters cross are fascinating as well. But from that point forward, the quality of this novel goes south, and my disappointment increased as the story progressed.
I can’t compare Small Great Things to Picoult’s other novels because I haven’t read any. But at least in Small Great Things, Picoult seems to have bitten off more than she can chew, and I say this for two reasons.
First, as Ruth and Kennedy become more entwined, each character’s thoughts and spoken words sound less like her own and more like a prepared speech, or an essay trying to make a point about racial prejudice. In the Author’s Note at the back of the book, Picoult says that even twenty years ago, she had wanted to write a book about racism in the U.S., but “I started the novel, foundered, and quit. I couldn’t do justice to the topic, somehow.” Alas, twenty years later Picoult finally wrote that book, Small Great Things, but still foundered. I sense, not only from the details set out in Picoult’s afterword, but also in the novel itself, that Picoult struggled mightily to create an entertaining story with racism at its core. The author loses her rhythm and timing as the novel progresses, and I sense that some of those soapbox- and didactic-sounding words and inner thoughts of Ruth and Kennedy might have been tempered and better edited if Picoult had given herself more time to digest and mull over her research, interviews and investigations. Yes, racism is complicated and awful and fascinating all at the same time, but because of the convoluted and heavy nature of the subject, I think that Picoult rushed sending this book to press, and should have allowed her ideas to percolate longer and her characters to develop more deeply and fully.
Which leads to my second reason for not caring for Small Great Things: the actions of neither Ruth nor Kennedy propel them strongly enough to the final resolution of the story. The structure of this novel begins to weaken progressively about halfway into it, perhaps because Picoult was overwhelmed by tackling the elephant of racial prejudice, both subtle and obvious. For me, this book at first was like opening a beautifully wrapped big box, only to find another wrapped smaller box inside, which when opened reveals yet a smaller box, and so on, with expectations and tensions building as each box gets smaller and smaller. Obviously, the hope is that when that last diminutive box is unwrapped and opened, there’s a tiny but endearing treasure to be found. Instead, as a reader of Small Great Things, when I opened that last small box, all I found was a cheap toy ring. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that Picoult throws out a “surprise ending,” an O’Henry-like trick that some readers might find clever. To me though, that “surprise ending” seems as cheap and disappointing as a plastic toy ring, and has little to do with the prior actions or inherent desires of any of the three main characters.
As Picoult says in the Author’s Note about Small Great Things, “I wrote it because I believed it was the right thing to do, and because the things that make us most uncomfortable are the things that teach us what we all need to know.” To me, that quote has “reader beware” all over it. Do I really want to read fiction because the author wants to “teach” me the reader, and because she thinks it’s the “right thing to do”? Absolutely not. Picoult says that she wants to make the reader uncomfortable, but my discomfort from reading a novel that lacks a strong and consistent voice and structure distracted me from the kind of discomfort that Picoult intended. Don’t get me wrong…I applaud Picoult for wanting to write an entertaining novel that also enlightens its readers about racism. Unfortunately though, Small Great Things lost its way half-way in, and never found it again.
Despite Picoult’s good intentions, I’m awarding the novel Small Great Things only 2 and ½ stars out of 5.