May 6, 2009
Review: Vanishing Acts, by Jodi Picoult
I know that Jodi Picoult has legions of fans who will disagree with me on this, mayhap violently, but I'm going to say it anyway: I really don't see what's supposed to be so great about her books. Vanishing Acts was just kind of spectacularly okay. Is particular novel an outlier? Are other books fantastic? You tell me.
Vanishing Acts opens with Delia, the protagonist, finding a small child as part of her job as a search-and-rescue operation. She has a four-year-old daughter, Sophie, with her (recovering) alcoholic lawyer financé, Eric. She and Eric still spend time with their mutual best friend, Fritz. Delia also spends a lot of time with her father, Andrew, a genial widower who stands on Town Council and builds seniors' homes and does magic tricks.
Except, of course, his name isn't really Andrew. It's Charles. And her name isn't really Cordelia. It's Bethany. And her mother, it turns out, didn't die in a car crash after all. Andrew/Charles is really Delia/Bethany's father, but she's the victim of a parental kidnapping, taken from her mother in Arizona to New Hampshire as a four-year-old. This all comes out at around page twenty; angst and jail time ensue. Also, there's a recipe and instructions for making crystal meth. And for how to make a gun out of an asthma puffer. Also, there is shanking. You know, it's really a darker story than the cover might lead you to believe (the version I read had this cover).
I think that Vanishing Acts has two major problems, namely the voicing and the protagonist. The narration is shared among multiple characters who all use the first-person perspective: Delia, the said grown-up kidnappee; her father, Charles/Andrew, the pharmacist-turned-felon; Eric, Delia's (recovering) alkie fiancé and, not coincidentally, her father's lawyer; Fitz, Delia and Eric's best friend, who works as a journalist and (surprise, surprise) is full of unrequited love for Delia; and Elise, Delia's not-actually-dead Mexican bruja mother. And all of these voices sound the same. Exactly the same, in fact; I can only assume that they sound like Jodi Picoult. 
This is problematic largely because it takes away from the authenticity of the story. All of the aforementioned characters have led different lives, grown up in different states, and the like -- but the monotony of their voicing takes away from that. None of the characters seem to think or speak in different ways, despite their variety of age, experience, sex, racial heritage, etc. It's highly noticeable -- and when I stop my reading to think about why the writing isn't better, that's a fairly bad sign. (Aside: do you know who did multiple characters with multiple voices really well? Russell Banks, that's who. End of aside.)
The other big problem, for me, was Delia. Not so much that she's hugely annoying -- she's alright, I guess -- but that everyone else in the novel seems to think she walks on water. Neither Eric nor Fitz can live without her, as they tell the readers what felt like several dozen times. Her father was possessive enough -- perhaps with justification, perhaps not -- to take her to another State and then try to give her the world. The township hearts her because she rescues runaways and little kidnappees with her very smart dog. Overall, there's rather a lot of "Ooh, Delia is sooo amazing"-type telling, with very little showing to account for it. The reader is told over and over that Delia is the light of [whoever]'s life, but she doesn't seem all that special from the way that she acts or thinks. It's a bit irritating and again, it's something that draws my attention to the writing instead of the plot -- that's right, I'm harping on style again -- and as such, it doesn't serve the book very well.
That being said, it's not an awful book. Vanishing Acts is an average read, probably well-suited to the beach. I'm in no hurry to read more Picoult after this, but she's not left a bad taste in my mouth either: it's meh reading.
 Okay, there is actually a reason for this within the story. But it comes so late in the text that it can't make up for the reader's previous impression of stultifying sameness. My objection stands.