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My Sister’s Keeper

Jodi Picoult

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Plot Overview

In her career as a novelist, Jodi Picoult has published at an extraordinary pace, releasing seventeen books in about as many years. Though panned by some critics for the commercial nature of her writing, she has earned a large and devoted following of readers. Nearly 14 million copies of her books are in print in the U.S. alone, and her work has been translated into thirty-four languages in thirty-five countries. Her novels cover a range of topics, from school shootings to teen suicide to death row inmates, yet many share a single theme: ordinary people in extraordinary and often morally complicated situations. All manner of horrific things happen in the lives of Picoult’s characters, and the choices her characters make in response typically form the crux of her plots. Her books often explore the psychological consequences of wrenching incidents and decisions, and they deal largely in moral gray areas, where the ethics of medicine, law, and society come into conflict with one another. Rarely, if ever, do her novels offer easy resolutions.

Born in 1966, Picoult attended Princeton University for her undergraduate studies. Seventeen magazine published two of her short stories while she was still a student. After graduation, Picoult took on a series of different jobs to earn her living. She worked as a technical writer for a brokerage firm, wrote copy for an advertising agency, served as an editor at a textbook publisher, and taught English to 8th graders. Eventually she enrolled in Harvard, where she received her Masters in Education. She married Tim Van Leer, and while pregnant with her first child she published her first novel, Songs of the Humpback Whale, which was released in 1992. But not until the release of her 1998 novel, The Pact, about the apparent murder of a seventeen-year-old girl by a boy she had known all her life, did Picoult begin to achieve wide-scale commercial success.

In 2004, Picoult published My Sister’s Keeper. Like most of her works, the novel takes on a range of morally complex issues, from the ethics of genetic engineering, to the right of terminally-ill patients to elect to die, to a minor’s right to control her own body. Genetic engineering alone has been the subject of controversy since its very first uses to help infertile couples conceive via in vitro fertilization. As the potential uses of the method have grown, so have the moral questions that such genetic manipulation raises. Notably, the ethics of using science to create a so-called “designer baby,” meaning one whose physical traits are selected by the parents, has become the object of frequent and heated debates. These quandaries, and those regarding the rights of terminally ill patients and minors to determine what happens to their bodies, all intertwine in My Sister’s Keeper, which tells the story of one family devastated by their child’s battle with acute promyelocytic leukemia, an extremely aggressive form of cancer. As in many of her novels, Picoult distills these conflicts to their most controversial aspects, places ordinary people in the midst of them, and challenges readers to confront their own preconceptions about the subject.

The world of My Sister’s Keeperitalic brims with realistic medical and legal jargon. In fact, Picoult is renowned for diligently researching the topics she writes about, and she has said that her research can at times take even longer than the actual writing of the book. Her regular routine entails conducting numerous interviews with experts related to the issue at hand and spending time with real individuals and families who have been affected. The writing of her novel House Rules, for instance, about a teenage boy with the autism-spectrum disorder called Asperger’s Syndrome, involved several conversations with autistic children and their parents. For My Sister’s Keeper, Picoult spent time with pediatric oncologists who treat children with cancer. Picoult also brings her personal experiences to her books. House Rules came about in part because her cousin has autism, so she knew first-hand how autism can affect a family. With My Sister’s Keeper, Picoult drew on her experiences with her middle son, who at the age of five needed ten surgeries over three years to treat a tumor in his ear. Picoult says the desperation she felt sitting in the hospital beside her anesthetized son and knowing she could do nothing to help him informed her depiction of Sara, the mother in the Fitzgerald family of My Sister’s Keeper. That emotion, combined with the knowledge Picoult gathered in her research, imbues the book with a sense of realism.

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