‘Wish You Were Here’ engaged me, entertained me, surprised me, made me cry and made me think.
For me, it captured the emotional landscape of the Pandemic in early 2020, when the hospitals were overwhelmed; unthinkable numbers of people were dying every day, effectively drowning in their beds, their only hope being intubation and a medically induced coma that was so likely to prove fatal that people said their goodbyes before going under; whole countries were in lockdown, trying to limit the contagion that was rolling across the world and no vaccine was in sight.
Then it went beyond conjuring the fear and the grief of the dying and the bereaved and the exhaustion and fear of those trying to save them and looked at the impact on all of us of having ‘normal’ suddenly and dramatically suspended and then being asked to keep ourselves in isolation. It explored what that did to our sense of who we are. It showed how our identity is shaped by our remembered past and our imagined future by showing what happens when we question the truth of what we remember and feel that our used-to-be future is lost and our new future is unknowable.
What makes the book extraordinary is that it achieves all of that through a relatable, accessible, compelling story that focuses on one woman’s experiences. Diana is not the kind of heroine you might find in a pandemic thriller. She’s not leading the research for the vaccine or serving on the front line in a hospital. She’s not sacrificing herself for others. She’s a relatively normal, slightly driven, deeply disciplined, middle-class woman whose carefully planned life is derailed by a crisis that she has no control over.
The plot of Part One of ‘Wish You Were Here’ reads like one of those ‘women’s fiction’ books that seem to be published by the hundreds every year: the heroine who has the perfect life – a prestigious job at an art auction firm, a hot boyfriend who is also a Surgical Resident at top New York hospital, an upcoming long-planned vacation to the Galapagos Islands where she expects the boyfriend to propose to her – when the pandemic rolls in and she ends up on her dream island alone.
These are a style of book I have much of an appetite for and I’d have probably skipped this one except that previous experience tells me that Jodi Picoult uses these tropes like the coating that makes a pill easier to swallow and then delivers something more and different.
Even in the ‘conventional’ first half of the book, Jodi Picoult has hooked my emotions. Normally, I’d have had little sympathy for the woes of a privileged, young, middle-class career-woman who is having her ‘perfect-because-I’ve-never-really-explored-it life disrupted but Jodi Picoult slipped past my prejudices, got me to strip off the labels I’d imposed and see a real person. Then she hit me with the emotional weight of the early days of the pandemic. Here’s what I wrote at the time:
Jodi Picoult blindsided me today. I was driving back from the dump, listening to ‘Wish You Were Here’ as I made my way slowly home, driving beneath a dark-too-early sky that Spielberg would be proud of and we got to the part where Diana is reading an email in which her boyfriend, a doctor at a New York hospital, described his first thirty-eight-hour shift dealing with the influx of COVID patients who were struggling to breathe. There was nothing there I didn’t know. No new information at all. The only new thing was that I was crying as I drove because – well what kind of person could hear that and not cry?
As Part One of the book ended, I was starting to be invested in Diana’s unexpected life on a Galapagos island and what she was learning about herself. Then, Part two took such a completely unexpected turn that I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It called into question everything I thought I knew. It was designed to throw me out of the story I’d been swept up in and look again.
I stuck with it because the storytelling was strong enough that I was still deeply engaged but I struggled to understand what was unfolding. As I worked things out, I understood that, as a reader, I’d just been put through the same disorienting change that Diane and many others experienced.
The second part of the book took me deeper into Diana’s life and made her feel more real to me. I particularly liked the parts about her relationship with her mother. There is a lot here about identity and memory and our sometimes fragile sense of what is real. The story we tell ourselves about our lives and the lives of those around us: who they were, who they are, who they’re going to be, have the power of a physical force. So when something like the pandemic comes along and jeopardises our ability to sustain those stories without providing an alternative beyond an uncertain future, it’s a blow to our emotions and an attack on our self-image.
I think many of us are going to face insurmountable disruptions in our lives in the next decade, so having the mental flexibility to admit that and respond to it, not with a sense of what’s been lost but with a curiosity about who we can now become could be a key survival skill.
Jodi Picoult is an American writer who has published twenty-four novels, since 1992, including My Sister’s Keeper, The Storyteller and Small Great Things.
She has co-written two YA books with her daughter Samantha van Leer, Between the Lines and Off the Page.
She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and children.