Book Review: Small Great Things

Book Review: Small Great Things

Thank goodness I have finally returned to reading decent books. That’s not great books. But it’s an improvement over bad books. Which means, yes, I thought that Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult was a decent book. Not a great book. And thankfully not a bad book. It’s definitely a book club kind of book, and many book clubs have really enjoyed it. Ours was split and I found myself on both sides. It was definitely easy to read, even if it did go on too long. Then again, the easy writing style only worked once I got past the idea that I would have to read in the POV of a white supremacist. That was a thing that almost saw me put the book down.

We have here a story told from three perspectives. First, we have Ruth, a Black, single mother and labor and delivery nurse who is targeted in a murder case by racist parents when a baby under her care dies. Then we have Turk, a hard-core white supremacist who has married the love of his life who happens to be white-supremacist royalty. He heads to the hospital with his pregnant wife and dreams of their healthy baby purifying their race, but goes home emptyhanded and furious. And then there’s Kennedy, a young, white mother and the appointed public defender who is inexperienced and perhaps naive but now in charge of Ruth’s case… and all of their futures.

Many people have read Jodi Picoult before. This was my first experience. But I am led to believe that her books are crafted in such a way that they just scream “Recommend me for your book club!” Maybe on purpose; maybe it’s just her style. While I would think this was a fine thing—finding your audience and writing in that niche—some of the people at group were more accusing Picoult of something, insinuating that she picked hot topics and manipulated her readers with them. Well, as much as it seems correct that she likes to write about issues, I also don’t see book clubs actually discussing the real issues she writes about—just the books. But then the reader has read about the issues, at least. Perhaps with emotional rails that lead the reader in a certain direction. I guess I’m saying plenty of readers don’t mind being manipulated, if you want to use that word for it.

For me, though, when you have the lawyer (character) concluding, “She [the accused] doesn’t need my advice, because really, who am I to give it, when I haven’t lived her life?” (p415), I think we’ve lost our way with the moral and the story, some. She’s her lawyer, a lawyer the defendant consistently refuses to listen to about all the justice system stuff. So… that’s who she is, and she absolutely does have some authority and expertise to offer in the other lady’s life. Who is the other lady to keep ignoring and pushing back against her lawyer, actually? Race relations just got all mixed up into the lawyer-client relationship, which is kinda (one of) the point(s) of the book but also bothered me because it muddied everything and left me feeling dissatisfied with the ending. I would have liked more nuance with the role-reversal.

But back to the white supremacist thing. I just have to emphasize how difficult it was, at least at first, to read from his perspective, to give him space to develop without being super creeped out by being in his skin. I can see people DNRing the book at that point.

Otherwise, most people in my book club found the writing style to be approachable, easy to read. The twists kept the readers going. But it did get repetitive and in the end there was just too much included in the story. I agree that it felt written to become a movie. Some Picoult fans shared that they thought it was actually one of her worst books. It might have been inconsistent or unrealistic with some of the law stuff, but I don’t actually think we expect or need fiction to always be spot-on with reality. I also agree with the reader who said it “didn’t feel organic. More like some buttons had been pressed.” Which I think is akin to the other person saying they felt manipulated.

As a white woman, I do think I learned something while reading it, but not perhaps as much as the writer would have hoped. I mean, one of the book’s strong points is a “racist” character who looks just like you and me (oh white women of book clubs) alongside a more obvious racist. But I was annoyed by knowing I was being spoon-fed my medicine with the story, especially when it got cheesy or repetitive or, well, arguable/dubious (like the point above about an expert not being able to give advice to someone else because they have lived different lives (are different races)). I did think it was an easy read and I for sure wanted to know what was going to happen. I was at first impressed by the writing style, but it got long-winded, repetitive, and sometimes cheesy and also had a number of cliche characters (including the protagonist being a “palatable” Black woman instead of a more problematic and nuanced character).

The people in my group recommended three books that cover the same topics but are arguably better-written (the ratings are consistent with their conclusions, though Small Great Things also has great ratings.) One is The Violin Conspiracies by Brendan Slocumb (this novel does look really good), and Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin (another novel). There’s also The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones, a nonfiction collection of essays placing slavery at the center of understanding American history and American culture. Of course, there are many people who would read Picoult and probably not any of these other books, so perhaps Small Great Things is a good book to read for thinking and challenging, at least for the usual book club set. It is an easy read, at times riveting, and sometimes challenging or humbling, sometimes beautifully written. I just found it a bit draggy, overdone, and filled with too many cliched tropes. I did enjoy the read, though, once I adjusted to Turk’s POV (even though I wasn’t sure I should be adjusting to Turk’s POV). In the end, I felt it was worthwhile for having looked Turk’s character in the face and acknowledged the horrible things real people have done and are doing–as long as he doesn’t distract us or overwhelm the story of systemic racism.

If you want to know more about the award-winning and prolific author Jodi Picoult, you can find her website HERE. Many people consider My Sister’s Keeper to be her best.

“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are” (p1, Benjamin Franklin).

“…how love has nothing to do with what you’re looking at, and everything to do with who’s looking” (p11).

“A mother has nine months to get used to sharing space where her heart is; for a father it comes on sudden, like a storm that changes the landscape forever” (p45).

“I knew that sometimes when people spoke, it wasn’t because they had something important to say. It was because they had a powerful need for someone to listen” (p118).

“If the first freedom you lose in prison is privacy, the second is dignity” (p176).

“As a nurse you learn how to make a patient comfortable during moments that would otherwise be humiliating …. As I stand shivering, naked, I wonder if this guard’s job is the absolute opposite of mine. If she wants nothing more than to make me feel shame” (p176).

“I may not have much to say here, but I still can make the choice to not be a victim. The whole point of this examination is to make me feel lesser than, like an animal. To make me ashamed of my nakedness. / But I have spent twenty years seeing how beautiful women are—not because of how they look, but because of what their bodies can withstand. / So I stand up and face the officer, daring her to look away from my smooth brown skin, the dark rings of my nipples, the swell of my belly, the thatch of hair between my legs” (p177).

“Pride is an evil dragon; it sleeps underneath your heart and then roars when you need silence” (p214).

“…what we strive for and get, we deserve. What I neglected to tell him was that at any moment, these achievements might well be yanked away” (p234).

“It is amazing how you can look in a mirror your whole life and think you are seeing yourself clearly. And then one day, you peel off a filmy gray layer of hypocrisy, and you realize you’ve never truly seen yourself at all” (p234).

“That if our legacy is not entitlement, it must be hope” (p234).

“…the reason we lose people we care about is so we’re more grateful for the ones we still have” (p241).

“If I was in the right, how come I couldn’t stop rehashing what I’d said?” (p255).

“But you know, you go on, right? Because what other choice have you got?” (p262).

“’You know the hardest thing about being a mom?’ I say idly. ‘That you never get time to be a kid anymore.’ / ‘You never get time, period’” (p267).

“’From where you stepped in, in your life, it looks like we’ve got miles to go. But me?’ she smiles in the direction of the girls. ‘I look at that, and I guess I’m amazed at how far we’ve come’” (p269).

“’Slaver isn’t Black history,’ I point out. ‘It’s everyone’s history’” (p282).

“’I got other friends,’ Rachel answered. ‘You’re my only sister’” (p284).

“I hear the flow of the fountain behind me, and I think about water, how it might rise about its station as mist, flirt at being a cloud, and return as rain. Would you call that falling? Or coming home?” (p290).

“The people you think are solid torn out to be mirrors and light; and then you look down and realize there are others you took for granted, those who are your foundation” (p340).

“It is remarkable how events and truths can be reshaped, like wax that’s sat too long in the sun. There is no such thing as a fact. There is only how you saw the fact, in a given moment. How you reported the fact. How your brain processed that fact. There is no extradition of the storyteller from the story” (p342).

“It’s crazy, isn’t it, that you can love a girl so much you can actually create another human being? It’s like rubbing two sticks together and getting fire—all of a sudden there’s something alive and intense there that did not exist a minute before” (p383).

“Micah clears his throat. ‘Radical thought number one: maybe you need to take yourself out of this equation’” (p396).

“Prejudice goes both ways, you know. There are people who suffer from it, and there are people who profit from it” (p408).

“For me, the dire consequence of that stoplight conversation was feeling snubbed. For him, it was something else entirely. It was two centuries of history” (p414).

“Does that make me a villain here? Or does that just make me human?” (p417).

“Equality is treating everyone the same. But equity is taking differences into account, so everyone has a chance to succeed …. The first one sounds fair. The second one is fair” (p427).

“There’s only so many things you can hate. There are only so many people you can beat up, so many nights you can get drunk, so many times you can blame other people for your own bullshit. It’s a drug, and like any drug, it stops working” (p443).

“How many exceptions do there have to be before you start to realize that maybe the truths you’ve been told aren’t actually true?” (p443).

“Maybe however much you’ve loved someone, that’s how much you can hate. It’s like a pocket turned inside out. / It stands to reason that the opposite should be true, too” (p443).

“People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love” (p453, Nelson Mandela)

A star-studded cast and crew was announced for the movie version of Small Great Things in 2017, but I see no news since then. It would make a good movie and be easy to adapt, but at this point it’s probably a no-go.