A certain kind of story

I discovered Jodi Picoult’s books back when I was on the cusp of 40, with her book Mercy (I think). I may have read one of the ones before that, but the descriptions on Goodreads don’t spark any memories. But I have read so many books over the years that sometimes I come to an old one thinking it is new, only to vaguely recognize the story as I get further into it, so I’m not sure. Anyway, after that I made a habit of picking up her books until somewhere around My Sister’s Keeper, in 2004, and after that I lost interest and quit reading them.

It wasn’t because she wasn’t a good writer, and in fact I enjoyed the story in My Sister’s Keeper; but her books increasingly reminded me of my least favorite young adult novels—those the library profession calls “problem novels.” Somehow, even though her characters remained fairly compelling, her books began to seem to me like those preachy tomes written for teens that turned out to be about a condition, or a social concern, rather than a person; as Michael Cart says in his history of teen fiction,

“The problem novel stems from the writer’s social conscience. It gave the frisson of reading about darkness from the comfort of a clean, well lit room.”

Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism, p. 35

Rather than telling realistic stories about the teens who experienced certain aspects of life, the books focused on such subjects as drug abuse, abortion, unwed motherhood, and so on, using a formula that approached the feeling of an old-fashioned morality play. Problem novels sought to illustrate the perils inherent in poor life choices, and every time I opened a Picoult novel, it was with the unspoken question: What is the problem/flavor of the month in this one? They became repetitive and increasingly uninteresting to me (although a certain segment of readers continued to eagerly devour every word).

There were a few things that enticed me to once more read a Picoult bestseller: One of the characters is a bee-keeper, which profession has always fascinated me; Picoult co-wrote it with someone rather unexpected, about whom I wanted to know more; and the “What Should I Read Next?” crowd on Facebook pretty much raved unequivocally about Mad Honey, Picoult’s latest hit with Jennifer Finney Boylan.

There were parts of this book that I liked very much. The bee-keeping was, as anticipated, as enthralling as always. The back stories and characters of the two moms were compelling, as was the head-rush of a romance between the two teens, Asher and Lily. The authors wrote both their main and subsidiary characters with conviction and believability. But there was a fatal flaw within the story that really bothered me.

The basic outline is this: Olivia McAfee took her six-year-old son Asher and ran from an abusive husband back to the New Hampshire town where she grew up, inheriting her father’s bee-keeping operation. Asher is now in high school, a star of the hockey team, a good student, and a kind son and friend, having grown up in Olivia’s sole custody.

Ava Campanello fled with her daughter, Lily, from her own marital trials and more, and her employment options with the park service landed her in the same town in New Hampshire just in time for Lily’s senior year, hoping for a fresh start for the both of them.

Asher and Lily are almost immediately drawn to one another, and begin an intense relationship that lasts about four months before Lily ends up dead, having fallen down the stairs in her own home, and Asher is the one who finds her and is discovered weeping and clutching her body—but not calling for an ambulance. After a brief investigation, the police come for Asher and he is charged with first-degree murder.

Thus far, the whole plot worked for me, even the crazy timeline about which some complain, which jumped from before to after “the event” in almost every chapter, and also switched narrators/viewpoints—Olivia to Lily. Then we get to the trial. Olivia’s brother, Jordan, is, serendipitously, a rather famous defense attorney, and immediately comes to the rescue, agreeing to represent Asher pro bono. We go through all the details of a murder case—expert witnesses, character witnesses, the prosecution’s efforts to make the defendant look as guilty as possible by characterizing him as a violent, impulsive liar with both motive and opportunity. Then we get to the defense and Jordan completely falls down on the job.

The question that is never, ever asked by anyone—Asher, his lawyer, his mother or, apparently, the police—is the one that would have been central to the defense in any halfway well written murder mystery. Can you guess what it is? In his Dismas Hardy legal thriller series, author John Lescroart characterizes it as the “SODDIT” defense: Some Other Dude Did It. In Mad Honey, Asher adamantly maintains his innocence: When he walked in the (slightly ajar) front door, Lily was lying at the foot of the stairs, her head bleeding. His uncle/lawyer and his mother believe him, despite his mother’s secret fears that genetics have won out and he is violent like his gas-lighter of a father. The prosecution is insisting that he did do it, based almost solely on circumstantial evidence—some DNA, some texts, a scandal in his past that brands him as a liar. But not one person who believed he didn’t do it (including Asher himself!) spoke up to say, If Asher didn’t kill her, then who did?

Jordan should have been all over that—questioning the police and detectives to see whether they had considered any alternate person and scenario, having his investigator look into others who might have been suspicious, checking neighbors and traffic cams to determine whether anyone else visited the house that day, but…crickets. No mention of an alternative theory of who the murderer could be. That’s pretty much when the story lost me, and should have been when Asher, fighting for the rest of his life, or his mother, with her greater adult wisdom, sat up and said Jordan! WTF?

It didn’t totally ruin the rest for me—I still liked the characters (particularly Lily), the story, and the twists, small and large, and might recommend it based on those things. (And you should know that, despite all the surface details cataloged in this review, I have kept all the big secrets of the book.) But that one omission, paired with the way the book ends, made me realize that perhaps my initial conclusion—that Picoult is too focused on the social concerns she wants to highlight to truly immerse herself in the meat of the story—was not off base. I won’t say I’ll never read another from the Picoult oeuvre, but it will take something extraordinary to convince me.

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