OFF THE BOOKSHELF: Jodi Picoult’s ‘Change of Heart’

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I’ve been choosing a lot of very soul-searching books lately for this blog, I promise I’ll move onto something lighter next time but to continue on this leitmotif is ‘Change of Heart’.To summarise, the story revolves around the lives of Claire and June Nealon, a daughter and mother struggling with the fact that young Claire needs a heart transplant to survive and that the remainder of their family were murdered before Claire was born by a man currently residing on death row – Shay Bourne. When he is transferred into his final stay in custody Shay has a ‘revelation’ of sorts and offers to donate his heart in recompense. As June considers this extraordinary offer from the murderer of most of her family, a number of other miraculous events happen around Shay Bourne before his sentence of death can be carried out, leading to a court case over whether he may be able to donate his heart that coincides with some in the community who believe Shay is actually performing messiah-like miracles.

Picoult’s novels always carry the timbre of heavy emotional charge and ‘Change of Heart’ is no exception. But as she focuses heavily on themes such as law, religion, murder, justice, families, love and death I guess it’s always going to be inevitable. This book also uses her much-loved ‘same story told from many different viewpoints’ technique but each voice is extremely unique and there is little overlap between the standpoints of each character. Reading the story through the eyes of all these different fictional people is a bit like gazing through a many-sided glass crystal: look at the same piece of sunlight through different sides of it and the colour changes remarkably. Same story, very different perspective. And the results are spectacularly disparate. It lends a powerful level of depth to the narrative, no matter what your personal opinion is on the subject at hand. It is these characters that carry the emotive themes so well and Picoult has carefully chosen a huge array of fictional lives to examine the story through. To list them: a very young mathematics major-turned priest haunted by past decisions, a homosexual death-row inmate with AIDs who murdered his love when he caught the man cheating, a level-headed and discontent female ACLU lawyer and of course, the mother, June Nealon.  As standalone characters they’re each quite unconventional but there’s a layer of reliability within each person that pulls the story frighteningly close to your heart as you read. I would not in good conscience recommend this book to anyone who does not want to shed a little tear at the end of it or who has had any kind of trauma recently in their lives; it’s not cheery and can leave you quite blue by the end, as well as appreciative of all the good things you have going for you.

‘Change of Heart’ employs a lot of  what I like to term ‘emotive legal,’ as there is a detailed foray through a court sequence but the focus is not on the evidence as such, just the emotion behind it. Apart from this level of tear-jerking, the book itself isn’t a difficult read but for sheer content alone I’d have to hazard that it is suited primarily to females (not to leave out the men but I am seriously generalising in this recommendation) above the young adult age bracket. I can’t honestly imagine anyone below sixteen ever finding this story engaging unless they are extremely seriously-minded or mature. It is a mature story, because the ‘bread and butter’ of it wants you to question what you believe. Do miracles exist? Can anyone ever atone for murder? What if everything you knew about the person you loved was in fact, false? What do you do after you’ve lost a child? How would you sit through the days leading to your death? Could you sentence someone to the death penalty?

“You know why I think we still execute people? Because, even if we don’t want to say it out loud – for the really heinous crimes, we want to know there’s a really heinous punishment. Simple as that… I guess the question is: Who gets to identify those people? Who decides what crime is so awful that the only answer is death? And what if, God forbid, they get it wrong? What we’re left with is death, with the humanity removed from it.”

Tangled stories like ‘Change of Heart’ carry a few really well-executed (pardon the pun) plot twists which can change your whole view of the story at any given moment. Prepare to have the rug pulled out from underneath you a few times. And for goodness sake, bring the tissues and maybe something cuddly to hug.  Bring your perceptions of religion and messiahs and miracles in the modern age. They’re about to be challenged. Bring your definition of justice and see if it changes substantially by the end of the novel. But hey, why not? Everyone needs a little bit of a challenge once in a while. This book can shake you right to the core and I do not say that lightly. 

Thanks for reading this through, let me know if you think differently about the novel. Please pester me on Twitter to keep this going or if you have a book you’d highly recommend me to pull off the bookshelf. SophA