Jodi Picoult’s debut novel is not a particularly easy read. It doesn’t help that we have FIVE point-of-view characters, and that one of those characters – teenager Rebecca Jones – is telling the story BACKWARDS!!
The worst part about this technique is that we learn about Rebecca’s boyfriend’s death very early in the novel, but the placing of this incident (which should be the top of the narrative arc as it is the most important thing to happen to ALL of the characters) is (a) way too early, thus destroying any tension associated with it, and (b) placed in a random fashion, just after we’ve settled down on the Quest/Journey part of the story.
Thirty-five-year-old Jane Jones has an absent famous husband (Oliver Jones.) After fifteen years of suffering (mostly) silently, she explodes, leaves and takes their 14-year-old daughter Rebecca from San Diego to Massachusetts to go stay with her brother Joley, with whom she is very close.
Joley leads her to him with a series of letters that begin as a meditation on their lives as abused children, and end with directions (“take Route 8 to Gila Bend.”) The point of view narratives are rotated amongst the five characters – Oliver Jones (absent husband) Jane Jones (frustrated mother) Rebecca Jones (their teenaged daughter) Joley Lipton (Jane’s brother) and (eventually) Sam Hanson (Joley’s boss.) Unfortunately, just as we arrive in Salt Lake City (the second stop on this journey) Rebecca suddenly chimes in with a description of her boyfriend’s death, which is so bizarre as to throw you off completely. (I was fortunate in having the audiobook at hand with five talented actors playing the five POV characters, which helped somewhat. Liz Morton played Rebecca, Carol Monda played Jane, Jonathan Davis was Oliver, James Colby was Sam and Chris Sorenson was Joley.)
The other thing that indicates this is a debut novel is that poor Jane never catches a break. After being abused by her father, she has a scream-inducing nightmare on the eve of her marriage to Oliver. A bad fight with her husband early on in their marriage, leads her to putting three-year-old Rebecca onto a plane back to her father, only to have that plane crash and the child nearly die. Finally, just as she is finding some happiness herself, she inadvertently causes daughter Rebecca unbearable pain.
Lastly, the title is NOT helpful. SONGS OF THE HUMPBACK WHALE doesn’t get at the theme of this story, which is about broken lives, broken marriages, broken families. A far better title would have been BROKEN HOMES, or even just BROKEN. (SONGS OF THE HUMPBACK WHALE makes you feel as if you’re JUST going out on a boat with a marine biologist, when the novel is about so much more.)
Jodi Picoult is such a talented writer, and I have never seen her make these mistakes before. What a pity that her editor at the time wasn’t more helpful. Having said that, this is an interesting read, as you can see the talent in this early novel behind the mistakes. My favorite scene is where Oliver is attempting to write a research paper, only to be interrupted constantly by the voice in his head. That scene shines with Jodi Picoult’s talent. Four stars.