The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult (Atria, 2013, 480pp.)
“It was a strange idea, that what happened to me isn’t my tale to tell, but something completely separate from me. I wonder if this had been my problem all along: not being able to dissect the two.”
Sage, a young non-practicing Jewish woman, has lived an intensely private life after a car accident left her with a scarred face. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that she really has no life. She works at a friend’s bakery, preferring to work the lonely overnight shift baking the store’s wares rather than interact with the public. Her relationships are limited to Mary, her former-nun-turned-baker friend, Minka, her beloved Holocaust-survivor grandmother, and Adam, a married mortician with whom she is having an affair.
Then she meets Josef, an elderly German immigrant who makes regular visits to Mary’s bakery during the daytime. Despite his foreign origins, he’s been part of the community for years, working as a trusted high school teacher and baseball coach. At first glance, he seems to be just a lonely widower eager to make friends in his old age. Imagine her shock when, shortly afterward, he reveals that he really has ulterior motives in pursuing their friendship. Decades ago, he was an SS officer during the Holocaust (an overseer for the women’s camp at Auschwitz, no less). This confession, in turn, leads to his two-fold motive in gaining her trust. Because she is ethnically Jewish, she will be able to fulfill his last two end-of-life goals: one, that a Jew receive his confession and forgive him for his crimes, and two, that this same person take his life in compensation for the millions lost. Naturally, she’s a bit apprehensive in agreeing to his proposition. When he senses her hesitation, he asks her to keep their deal secret so that he will not be apprehended by the legal system, and therefore be cheated out of his self-styled chance for redemption. Through multiple first-person viewpoints, Sage, her grandmother, Minka, Josef, and various other characters take turns serving as the titular storyteller to unfurl the remainder of a narrative that takes place over sixty years ago.
Most of Jodi Picoult’s books are centered around controversial issues: assisted suicide (Mercy), same-sex marriage (Sing You Home), the death penalty (Change of Heart), etc. Most of her novels are deeply tainted by the author’s own political bias. With The Storyteller, I would like to give my kudos to Ms. Picoult, who has, for the first time since My Sister’s Keeper, decided to focus on the human story and not solely on the issue itself.
This doesn’t mean the book is free of flaws, however. As I said, Sage, Minka, and Josef take turns narrating (with one or two other characters). Up until we get to Minka’s narrative, which describes the brutal decimation of Poland’s Jewish population—and, for that matter, Josef’s narrative, which describes his experiences as a Hitler Youth—the story remains focused on Sage the scarred, bread-baking adulteress. In addition to this, the book has its obligatory Picoultian formulas that honestly made me roll my eyes: the foremost of which are the love interest and, of course, what Picoult novel isn’t complete without the “twist” that the author’s fans can see coming a mile away?
So. Thinking about the book as a whole, it’s definitely worth a read. Thinking about it compared to other books, however, I really have to be honest: like some books leave a bad taste in your mouth, this one left that “Jodi Picoult” taste in mine. All her books have the same flavors and flaws in varying degrees. So, while in the universe of Jodi Picoult, this book manages to be one of her better ones. But compared to other fictional works on the Holocaust? It’s about middling—no more, no less.
Click on cover for image source.