Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
The cover says this is Picoult’s most important book. As Handle With Care was a book about raising a disabled child, this book could be titled “A White Person’s Guide to Racism.” Picoult is a very accessible author;. Reading her is like reading the novel equivalent of a mainstream Hollywood movie; the people tend to be polished and shiny and exaggerated enough that you know where they stand.
Kennedy is a public defender who, unlike her compatriots, is doing the job because she’s passionate about it and she has a rich spouse who can support her. Ruth is a hard working ER nurse who manages to fit in with white society because of her lighter skin and her exemplary academic background. She has a sister, Adisa, who is on the other end of the spectrum, a single mother whose kids dress in street swag and speak a version of English that Ruth barely understands. The antagonists are Turk and Brittany, violent members of a white power group whose idea of a good time is to go out and assault unsuspecting people who belong to one of the many, many groups they disdain. These two groups come together when Turk and Brittany’s baby is born at the hospital where Ruth works. The baby dies, and the parents sue Ruth. The hospital basically hangs Ruth out to dry, and Kennedy is assigned to defend her.
There are things I liked about the novel. It does deal with a wide variety of aspects of racism in America. It deals with the presumption of guilt, about what it means to fit in, and about how dangerous it is to be a black American. She talks about the costs of assimilation, what she gave up to “fit in” with white society, and how little she actually fits in in the ways that matter. The first half of the book was slow, but after the trial started, it picked up. There was a section in the middle where I was actually excited to read it and didn’t want to put the book down.
I wanted to like this book more. I admired Picoult’s ambition, and I wanted to like Ruth and Kennedy, but she made it kind of hard to really get into them. Kennedy seemed like she was sort of becoming a real person, and then she’d have these cutsey perfect couple interactions with her husband that seemed like scripted toothpaste ads and it would pull me out of the story. Ruth would start to feel like a real person, and then she’d have these Reader’s Digest “good citizen” moments and she’d feel more like someone dressed up for the camera. For example, her son was not just super smart and a good student, his name was Edison. Was Einstein just a little too on the nose? His dad wasn’t just a veteran, he was an exemplary veteran who was killed in the line of duty. It was like Picoult just didn’t trust that the reader would like Ruth, so she had to sweeten her up a bit. Ditto for Turk. He and Brittany violently assaulted some innocent man on their first date, and after the death, Brittany is out of her mind with grief, and basically out of the story, so that Picoult didn’t have to develop her as a character. It was as if Picoult didn’t trust that we’d realize they were the bad guys. I mean, come on. You had me at neo-Nazi. Once you make someone a neo-Nazi, most people are going to figure out that person isn’t the hero.
There were some rather mawkish plot points as well. Ruth has to get another job, so she doesn’t get a call center job or a job filing medical records, which would be low-paying entry-level jobs far beneath her. No, she has to get a job at McDonald’s, the very epitome of a low-paying, low-status job. This sets her up for humiliation in more than one way. Seriously? McDonald’s? Some of the courtroom scenes really belabor the medical background, with tedious exposition that I glossed over because it slowed the story way down. It was as if Picoult was showing off the research she did. Yes, I get it. Good job. There’s a rather implausible plot point at the end as well, which leads to one of those “Disney villain falling off a cliff” moments, where the bad guy is out of the picture in a way that leave the good guys’ hands clean.
This is the second Picoult book I’ve read, and I think it might be my last. I can see what she was trying to do here, and I applaud her for it, but there just wasn’t enough subtlety for my taste. The plots were too contrived, the characters too cardboard, the good guys too good and the bad guys too bad. The characters acted stupid just to make mistakes which would teach the reader a lesson. I noticed that when the author switched from Ruth’s viewpoint to Kennedy’s, I had a hard time figuring out which person’s viewpoint it was because their voice was the same. For a work to help people think about racism in a new way, especially if it’s not a subject they’ve learned a lot about, this is a good novel. For a work that makes you get wrapped up in characters so much that you believe they are real people and deeply care about their lives, it’s sub-par. It’s a good book for a book club (because there are many points for discussion), or for readers who only read one book a year and want something that makes them feel smart without actually taxing them too much mentally.