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My Sister’s Keeper

Jodi Picoult

Study Questions & Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1. Is Sara’s and Brian’s choice to conceive Anna to be a genetic match for Kate morally justified?

How one answers that question may depend entirely on one’s own sense of morality. The fact that Sara and Brian used science to conceive Anna raises its own set of issues. Sara and Brian intervened in the natural process of pregnancy to choose the specific embryo they wanted to fertilize. They sought an embryo that matched Kate genetically, because they wanted to create a sibling for Kate who could serve as her donor. Although Brian argues in their television interview that he and Sara didn’t choose their baby’s eye color or IQ or any of the other traits that parents often select, they did use the same process involved in selecting those characteristics to choose a different set of characteristics. The ends may have been different, but the means were the same.

Perhaps more importantly, Sara and Brian deliberately created a child as a donor for their existing daughter, Kate. That act lead directly to Sara’s mindset in which she considered her new child not as an individual but essentially as a form of treatment for Kate. Just after Anna was born, Sara’s first words to the doctors were to be careful with the umbilical cord, which they needed for Kate, not to ask about her newborn. Brian says at one point that they intended Anna’s use as a donor to end with her birth, but clearly that didn’t happen. Throughout her life, Anna acted as Kate’s donor, and although her parents did love her and treat her as a person, to some degree her wishes always remained subordinate to Kate’s medical needs.

2. What is the significance of fire in the story?

Both Jesse and Brian have close relationships to fire. Brian, for instance, works as a firefighter, putting out fires and at times saving people from burning buildings. Jesse, we learn, began playing with matches young, possibly because he recognized that fire played a central role in Brian’s career, and he turns out to be the arsonist setting fires all over the city. For both of them, fire represents a destructive and ultimately uncontrollable force, and they often treat it as a symbol of Kate’s cancer. Jesse, because he feels powerless to stop Kate’s cancer, turns to using fire as an outlet for his feelings and as a way to gain Brian’s attention. Brian, however, battles constantly to limit the destruction fire can cause, in much the same way that he seeks to limit the pain that cancer inflicts on Kate.

Burning buildings appear multiple times in the story as metaphors for Kate’s situation. The first time we witness Brian saving someone from a fire, for instance, he thinks to himself that he became a firefighter to save people, but that he should have been more specific about whom he wanted to save. The comment implies that Kate is the person he wants to save, but also that he feels powerless to do so. Later, during the trial, Sara compares the way she views Kate and Anna to having a child trapped in a burning building. Anna’s ability to act as a donor for Kate is like having one child who knows how to lead the other child out of the fire. Although Sara doesn’t want to put Anna at risk, she knows the only way she can keep Kate alive is by sending Anna to get her. In other words, although using Anna as a donor causes her pain and would put her at risk if she were to donate her kidney, it’s the only way to save Kate.

3. Astronomy and the stars play a part in this story, from Brian’s hobby to the origin of Anna’s name. In what way do these things relate to the action in the story?

References to astronomy appear throughout the novel, but particularly in Brian’s narration and conversations. Brian tells Julia, for instance, that he and Sara named Anna after Andromeda. Significantly, one story about Andromeda says she is caught in the sky between her parents, just as Brian takes Anna’s side in the lawsuit while Sara opposes Anna’s position. Brian also describes the concept of twin stars, which orbit each other so tightly that they can appear from a distance to be one star. The metaphor refers to Anna and Kate, whose lives intertwine so greatly because of Anna’s role as Kate’s donor that their identities seem inseparable. Just as in the case of twin stars one star can outshine the other, Kate draws all the attention of Brian and Sara because of her sickness, leaving Anna unnoticed.

Moreover, Brian describes to Julia the existence of dark matter, which cannot be seen directly but can be detected by the gravitational pull it has on the visible objects around it. Dark matter, in this context, symbolizes the hidden motivations of various characters in the story. These motivations cannot be seen directly, but their presence can be detected by their effects on the behavior of the characters. Campbell, for instance, hides his epilepsy throughout the story, yet it influences his relationship with Julia. Jesse, similarly, tries to hide his feelings of powerlessness against Kate’s cancer, yet those feelings become apparent through his acts of arson. Lastly, Anna does not reveal that she wants to help Kate die because she knows Kate no longer wants to live and because she feels it would free her from her dependence on Kate, yet that desire prompts her to file the lawsuit that sets the novel’s main action in motion.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. What motivates Anna to file the lawsuit, and how does this motivation relate to Anna’s stated intent to gain control over life with the lawsuit?

2. Are Brian and Sara equally good parents to all three of their children? Have they treated them equally?

3. Sara’s chapters take place almost entirely in the past. What is the significance of this?

4. What is the significance of the story of Taylor Ambrose, and why is Sara the one who tells it?

5. Which character changes the most, and which changes the least?

6. Thematically, how does Julia and Campbell’s relationship fit into the story arc of the Fitzgerald family?

7. What are the central ethical questions present in this story? By the end of the novel, have any of these questions been answered in one way or another?

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