The Masochistic Dystopias of Jodi Picoult

Posted: August 1, 2011 in Uncategorized

For those unfamiliar with Jodi Picoult, whether through luck or good judgement, she is ‘Britain’s biggest-selling female novelist‘, who writes contemporary stories of Heartwrenching Moral Dilemma. (Her books’ covers each feature a basic outline of the story in the form ‘scenario – but problem’ with the strapline ‘What Would You Do?’). Her bestselling novel to date is My Sister’s Keeper, made into the 2009 film with Cameron Diaz and Alec Baldwin. It’s quite openly discussed that she essentially writes the same novel repeatedly; to be fair, as an anonymous person in the publishing industry commented to me ‘it’s a winning formula, why change it?’ (A selection, nay slew, of possible answers to this question will follow.) Anyway, one of her most recent efforts is the charmingly-named Harvesting the Heart, a title whose possible pastoral, affectionate connotations are somewhat undermined by its reference to the surgical process repeatedly performed by its male protagonist. In essence, chronologically, the story runs thus: Paige’s mother leaves when Paige is 5; she grows up in rural Connecticut with her father, and runs away aged 18. She gets a job in a cafe by drawing the proprietor (her Subconscious Psychic Drawing abilities, unintentionally including visual aspects of her subjects’ psyches, is one of the book’s more irritating conceits). There she meets Nicholas, arrogantly handsome trainee heart surgeon and son of Old Money photographic genius Astrid Prescott and her New Money husband Robert. He’s mysteriously drawn to Paige, does a bit of the playing-mah-bitches-off-against-each-other thing with his current girlfriend Rachel (more later), before he and Paige hook up and marry (much to his parents’ displeasure). Paige predictably abandons her dreams of art college in favour of looking after (and helping to fund) Nicholas and (in her early twenties) having his baby. Unsurprisingly, it’s hell; Nicholas works long hours in his relentless clamber to the top, appears to have had his capacity for empathy surgically removed at birth (along with his nascent senses of decency and responsibility, one assumes), and a post-natally-depressed and exhausted Paige abandons them both in favour of seeking out her long-lost mother. Whom, predictably, she finds, via her ex-lover Jake, and returns to camp out outside her house in the attempt to convince Nicholas to let her see her son. Astrid intervenes, Paige continues her relentless shadowing of Nicholas, and when baby Max falls ill, they are reconciled. How sweet.

I’m not quite sure where to start with criticism of this, to be honest. So much, so much is problematic: the abusive nature of the central relationship; that inexplicable American blind doctor-worship (at one stage Paige actually visualises Nicholas as God) ; the harking back to Victorian ideals of women as Angels of the House; unquestioing narratorial acceptance of Nicholas’ self-absorption, selfishess, cruelty and bluster; the underlying endorsement of self-sacrifice as the cardinal female virtue; and above all the poisonous, pernicious insistence that if someone doesn’t love you, all you have to do is keep sacrificing yourself for them long enough and finally they will give in and love you. The same ideal, of love conquering all, that keeps a million women all over the western world in unsatisfactory or abusive or just plain bad relationships; that same endless narrative arc that globalised media feeds us in a thousand different versions every minute of every day. Unhappy? All you need is Love. Being ill-treated? Love will conquer all; Love Them Enough and eventually the remorse (which the majority of abusers alternate with abuse) will win out. Partner won’t listen, won’t acknowledge your needs, mocks you for them? Maybe you’re not trying hard enough, being Loving enough, go back and self-abnegate again. Living in an unjust society? Unhappy with cultural pressures on your body? Unhappy with yourself? Love will make you feel better. If you’re a woman, even grand narratives of ideological struggle are only a backdrop to your (hete)romance. Partnered, but not feeling loved? Then you’re Not Trying Hard Enough. Sure, they may be a selfish inconsiderate jerkwad who disregards your feelings and uses you as domestic-slave-cum(hah!)-whore, but if they won’t acknowledge your needs or help you meet them, don’t leave them in a spirit of good riddance, maybe you’re not Loving Them Enough. Try doing what Paige does: enrol as a volunteer at his workplace, and follow him around all day; then go home when he does and camp on his lawn. As long as you’re doing it for Love – and don’t get me onto the things Picoult’s characters do for maternal love, for maternity is the apotheosis of female affection and destiny – it’ll All Come Right In the End. All men love a doormat, even if they don’t know it yet and you have to spend your whole life doormatting before they realise…

I wouldn’t even mind so much if being wth dickhead Nicholas was the sacrifice; if staying with him was the dramatised Price Paige Has To Pay for closeness to her son ; it would suck big donkey balls, but I suspect it’s a far from alien decision for many women. But that’s precisely the opposite of how her return to him is portrayed: the happy end of a love story, never mind the childish, selfish, vindictive behaviour he’s displayed throughout.

Lest you think I’m overreacting, let me share with you some particularly egregious elements.

  1. Nicholas continually sees – and treats – Paige in relation to himself, refusing to ackowledge or accept elements of her not relevent to him (her drawing, so prevalent in sections of the book when she’s not with Nicholas, disappears whenever they’re together). His reality is all about his perceptions. Examples: ‘She’d said 18, but he couldn’t believe it. Even if she looked old for her age, she couldn’t be a day older than 15’, believing she’s a virgin ‘child-woman’ (without ever asking her) and hitting the roof when he discovered she’d (gasp) not only had sex before him (with her childhood sweetheart, it’s not like she was promiscuous or anything, oh no) but (shock, horror, cue accusations of betrayal) had an abortion, that cardinal female sin. He ‘finds the sound of [her] voice soothing’ without listening to her; the narrative voice further trivialises her words in traditionally misogynist fashion as ‘gossip about the waitresses’.
  2. Paige essentially seduces him through housework, for God’s sake. She does the Manic Pixie Dream Girl thing for a bit, in achingly stereotypical fashion (describing invisible fireworks, walking barefoot after rain, chasing ice cream trucks, ‘act[ing] so much like a kid’, helping him See the Beauty in Everyday Things) then in a completely inexplicable flash (they have’t even fucked at this point, it’s before all the child-woman guff) proposes to her and takes her home. Whilst he goes out to his Important Masculine Work, she bakes him ‘butter cookies’, buys groceries, ‘clean[s] the entire apartment, decorates (‘in one afternoon, Paige had made his apartment resemble any other lived-in apartment’, through the judicious use of throws). When Nicholas comes back, he promises her ‘anything she wants’ – as long as it suits him, of course. If what Paige wants is recogition, indepedence, kindness or empathy, of course, she’s fucked – but never mind, her husband is a famous heart surgeon!
  3. Connectedly: the Angel In the House symbolism: ‘To come home to Paige every day would be a relief. To come home to Paige would be a blessing.’ If there’s a way to make this *more* creepy neo-Victorian – the chaste woman’s function is to stay in the house and create a domestic state to purify the man who goes out to work; her function is to support him, wash away the stains of the sordid Real World; her selfhood is subsumed in his – I can’t find it. How very 21st-century.
  4. To continue with the Creepy Victorian Bullshit theme, Nicholas fetishises Page’s supposed virginity. The first time they have meanigful sexual contact, ”Intact’ he whispered. ‘Perfect’.’ [I’m not joking]. When Paige interjects ‘You don’t understand’, in an admittedly feeble attempt to tell him otherwise, of her previous partner and abortion, he simply asserts ‘Yes I do’ and pulls him alongside her. His concept of her outweighs her objective truth. See point 1.
  5. Rachel. Ohhh, Rachel. When we/Paige first meet Nicholas, he has another girlfriend, who apparently lives, or at least stays a lot, at his apartment, and whom he’s evidently been with long enough for his mother to ask after. All we are told is that she is beautiful, a medical student, and ‘possibly the smartest woman Nicholas had ever met’. The first time he meets Paige, he goes home to her; she then mysteriously disappears, leaving Nicholas to spend time with Paige, and take her home to his parents’. When they are rude to Paige and she (fucking Hallelujah) gets out of his car on the way home, he goes back to Rachel, drags her across the city to the cafe where Paige works, kisses her in front of Paige, and announces to Paige she wants a portrait drawing. Rachel is slightly possessive – she takes Nicholas’s hand in front of Paige – but compared to Nicolas’s later possessiveness over Paige and/or his intentionally sticking his tongue down Rachel’s throat in the doorway of Paige’s workplace, this barely registers on the scale. However, Paige draws a vicious caricature of her, later referring to her as his ‘witch of a girlfriend’ (?!). Nicholas loses Rachel immediately in places and manner unspecified, and then goes back as Paige is closing up, telling her he ‘likes’ her vicious portrait, congratulating her on ‘making me come back’, and again promising her ‘Whatever you want’, then asking her to marry him. In other words, Nicholas cheats on his girlfriend with Paige, is upset by Paige’s quite legitimate hurt at his parents’ dismissal of her, so goes back to her to flaunt her in front of Paige, only to abandon her without a word and go back to propose to Paige. Both Paige and Nicholas appear to blame Rachel entirely; narry an acknowledgement from Nicholas that he was a dick, or the merest hint from Paige that Nicholas’s behaviour may have been a trifle unreasonable, manipulative, selfish, etc. There follows the previous scene highlighting Paige’s domesticity – fuck being the ‘smartest’, girls, or your own career, what you need is a really good recipe for butter cookies, a way with coffee table arrangement and the yen to be a domestic goddess. *slides despairingly down desk to floor *
  6. Just for fun, I went through some online abusive relationship checklists. This one, from the excellent Dragon Slippers (a book I still think should be taught in schools), had Nicholas scoring as abusive on almost every point:

Moving too fast – yep. What with proposing and moving her in on their third meeting and all.

Requiring Paige to give up her dreams – hell yes, a major theme of the book

Insisting his plans are more important than hers – ALWAYS

Being derogatory about her background – yes, especially in front of his fellow doctors, and then getting angry when Paige gets hurt by it *spit*

Being inconsiderate, disrespectful, and putting her down in public – repeatedly

Isolating her from friends and family – a recurring theme. Her having ‘no friends’ and her dependence on him are repeatedly referred to in both their narrations

Illogical incidents of abuse in the middle of bliss – again, repeatedly. Abandoning her after the disasterous visit to his parents’, everything to do with Rachel, see (5) above; repeatedly puttng her down or criticising her for being hurt, see above; unwarranted personal criticisms or refusal to listen or taking her service to him for granted, etc etc

Acting like nothing has happened – YEP

Blaming Paige – yep, see his reaction to her hurt over being humiliated in front of his collegues, her requests for help with childcare, etc etc

Intense unwarranted jealousy – on a couple of occasions

THAT’S 10/13 of the classical signs of abuse. On this quiz (‘Is it love or control?) Nicholas and Paige’s relatonship scored 13/15, with four ‘serious warning’ signs. And those are just the first two I pulled off the net. THIS IS NOT A HEALTHY RELATIONSHIP MODEL, LET ALONE A HEALTHY ENVIRONMENT IN WHICH TO BRING UP A CHILD.

7) The climactic scenes of the book see Paige camping on Nicolas’s lawn, infiltrating his parents’ house, enrolling as a volunteer at the hospital where he works and following him everywhere…. I repeat,THIS IS NOT A HEALTHY RELATIONSHIP MODEL, LET ALONE A HEALTHY ENVIRONMENT IN WHICH TO BRING UP A CHILD. 

That any narrative with such destructive emotional elements is being packaged and sold to women as wish fulfilment, or a happy romantic triumph over adversity, makes my blood run cold. That self-sacrifice and the ongoing tolerance of domestic abuse is Paige’s happy ending *twice over* showcases just about *everything* wrong with contemporary (American?) ideals of femininity. It’s like Twilight, but with white coats instead of shiny skin. Go on Jodi, if you’re that good on contemporary cultural dilemmas, *that* willing to engage with ongoing socio/psychological problems…sort it the fuck out? And everyone else, next time you read one of these moral dilemma novels, think about what they’re *really* trying to tell you.

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