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The other day, a friend of mine finished reading one of my all-time favourite books; “My Sister’s Keeper” by Jodi Picoult. It’s a while since I read it - it must have been at least two or three years back, as I don’t own a copy myself, but borrowed it from the library to read - but as my friend started discussing it with me, she brought me back to that world that Picoult created through her writing, and she brought me back to that family, where everything is oh-so-complicated.
For those of you who haven’t read My Sister’s Keeper, I’ll try to give you the basics without spoiling too much of the book. (Oh, and by the way, if you haven’t read it, you totally should). My Sister’s Keeper, like most of Picoult’s books, is all based around practically impossible decisions, in which the characters are stripped back to their own basic ethical and moral beliefs in order to try to come up with an answer to these decisions.
In My Sister’s Keeper specifically, the focus is on 13-year-old Anna Fitzgerald, a saviour-sibling born to help her older sister Kate, who has lived with acute promyelocytic leukemia (a form of cancer) almost all of her 16 years of life. Throughout the girls’ childhoods, Anna has constantly been on hand to undergo medical procedures to donate Kate things such as blood cells and bone marrow, in the hope that she can help her sister. However, Kate’s cancer keeps returning, and now Kate needs a kidney. It’s a risky process, for both Kate and Anna, and Anna suddenly finds herself not wanting to take part, but is stuck since her parents don’t give her any choice in the matter. And so the book begins with Anna enlisting the help of lawyer Campbell Alexander in order to fight against her parents in court for medical emancipation - if she wins, her parents will no longer be in charge of medical decisions regarding her and she will be able to decide for herself what she does and doesn’t want to do.
Whilst I may have forgotten many of its details and sub-plots, the main focus and questions from My Sister’s Keeper have stayed in the back of my subconscious mind ever since I read it and, since my friend has been reading it, I have found myself looking at the same issues with a different, older view to when I read it a couple of years ago. Back then, the main question I found myself struggling with was whether or not the Fitzgerald parents - Sara and Brian - should be allowed to have control over their daughter’s medical decisions, and whether it was right for Anna to not want to be part of the procedure if it essentially could lead to her sister’s death. Whilst those are still important questions, now, however, the questions I find myself asking go right back to the beginning, right back to the core values of the book - is it right to conceive a child specifically to save another? And is it right to do whatever it takes to save that first child, even if it means risking the second?
Is it right for the family’s attention and care to revolve around their sick daughter, to put her needs before those of both of their other children?
And that brings me to another issue - Anna and Kate aren’t the only Fitzgerald children. The sisters also have an older brother, Jesse, who has spent most of his life trying to get his parents to notice and pay attention to him. As his parents worry about Kate, Jesse slips further and further down a bad road; lighting fires, taking drugs, smoking cigarettes. It becomes clear that Jesse is struggling, due to the fact that both of his parents - especially his mother, Sara - are so focused on Kate that they have let their son slip away. Whilst Jesse’s needs aren’t life-threatening in the same way as Kate’s, is it right for Kate’s to always come first? Or is Jesse the one who is wrong, for doing dangerous things in an attempt to get his parents’ attention, when some may say that his sister Kate is in more need of the parental attention?
With a plot such as the one in My Sister’s Keeper, it’s easy for the reader to view the Fitzgerald parents as villains, as monsters, as terrible parents. But they’re parents that have been put into an incredibly tough situation, and they’re just trying to do what they think is right. That doesn’t mean it is right, it just means that they’re human, they’re flawed, and it’s up to the reader to decide whether they’re bad parents or not. The structure of the book also allows Picoult to build up all of her characters beautifully, as not just characters, but as people. All of the chapters are told from different points of view - yes, a lot of them are from the point of view of Anna, but there are also chapters from the point of view of Sara, of Brian, of Jesse, of Campbell. These chapters allow the reader to get inside the heads of those characters, to see what they’re thinking, to see their logic behind their actions and decisions. It’s a valuable thing, and important too, since it’s so easy to judge many of the characters because you think what they’re doing is wrong, and that you’d never make the same decisions as them. But you’re not in their position, so how do you know?
The way the chapters are structured also brings home a subtle and easily overlooked question - why does Kate - arguably one of the main characters of the story - have no chapters of her own, until the end? And what does this show about how much she herself is listened to?
I suppose the main point of this article is to show how much a book can get you thinking. I wasn’t lying when I said that the questions posed by My Sister’s Keeper remain at the back of my subconscious mind even now, two to three years after I read it. And even now, after two to three years of having them sit there, there are still issues I’m undecided about, decisions I’m not sure I’d be able to make if I were in the situation posed by the story. And that’s the brilliant thing about My Sister’s Keeper. It doesn’t tell you what you should believe, the author isn’t trying to convert the reader to her beliefs about the matter - it leaves all of the most important questions unanswered, so that you can formulate your own opinions about them, and decide what you think.
Books can make you aware of issues that you were previously unaware of that people do face, ask what you’d do in their situation, and make you glad that you don’t have to face those situations yourself. They can make you question your own fundamental beliefs, change your opinions and open you up to worlds you’ve never even thought about. They can change anything and everything about you, your beliefs and your thoughts.
Books are much more powerful than people give them credit for.