Book Review: A Spark of Light

Was this a good book? Yes. Was it the great bridge over the abortion divide the reviews claimed it was? Not even close.

A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult

This is the first book I have read by Jodi Picoult. I know, I know, even the rock I live under has heard of her. Having finally read one of her books, I will say she is a masterful writer, and I plan to read more.

Cover Description

A typical day at the Center, a women’s reproductive health services clinic, dissolves into chaos when a gunman bursts in and threatens the patients and staff. Hugh McElroy, a police hostage negotiator, fights for control of the perimeter and tries to communicate with the gunman. His phone vibrates with incoming texts messages, and he discovers his fifteen-year-old daughter, Wren, is among the hostages.

Characters

The story shifts perspective among clinic patients, staff, the shooter, police, and Wren. Picoult masterfully weaves backstory into the tension, and each character has a complex history that informs how they respond to the situation. I felt a great deal of empathy toward all involved, as if I personally knew them.

Plot

The plot counts backward, starting with the shooting and regressing to reveal how each person ended up at the Center. Tension is tight throughout, and despite numerous flashbacks, the pacing accelerates through each chapter.

Writing Style

As I alluded to earlier, Picoult weaves in character backstory throughout moments of high conflict to great effect. Her descriptions are eloquent, and her vignettes build enormous empathy for the characters and their struggles. The entire story is saturated with emotion, and the prose is beautiful. I can see why she is such a famous author.

Miscellaneous: Writer Bias

Abortion is a contentious topic in the US. If an author is passionate about it, I don’t believe bias-free writing is possible. I commend the author for poignantly capturing the complexities involved in abortion decisions.

While she makes many valid criticisms of the pro-life position, she also makes many errors. She often pits the worst/most fringe pro-life arguments against the best pro-choice ones, and some of her portrayals are hugely inaccurate. The book’s crisis pregnancy center is particularly laughable, but mischaracterizations plague most of the subplots.

Why should readers care?

Imagine this situation from the other side. Let’s say a pro-life author portrays pro-choice advocates legalizing infanticide. Are there pro-choice people who believe killing infants is morally acceptable? Yes—Alberto Giubilini, Francesca Minerva, and Peter Singer, to name a few—but this position is hardly mainstream. Polling consistently shows not only that pro-choice people are horrified by infanticide, but that they also strongly disapprove of third-trimester abortions. Such a portrayal would unfairly misrepresent the pro-choice position.

Genres like science fiction or dystopian fiction (e.g. The Handmaid’s Tale) are well-suited to exploring such extreme scenarios, but contemporary fiction ought to reflect real life. In portraying fringe or inaccurate positions as mainstream pro-life advocacy, Picoult diverges sharply from reality. This not only deceives readers, it breaks genre expectations.

Was this malicious intent by the author?

I doubt it. She took great pains to humanize her pro-life characters, even portraying the protestors being nice to the Clinic staff. I think she wanted to give the pro-life side fair treatment. She just isn’t familiar with good pro-life advocacy. Much like our hypothetical author who believes pro-choice advocates endorse infanticide, she believes pro-life advocacy conforms to her preconceived picture of it.

Secular Pro-life and Equal Rights Institute are two sources I recommend if you are interested in learning what pro-life advocates actually believe. I won’t list any arguments here (or in the comments) because this is a book review, not an abortion debate.

Conclusion

Was this a good book?

Yes. Ripe with tension from page one, this emotional journey back through time delves into the complexity involved in the abortion debate. Empathetic and heart-wrenching, each character’s story shows the breadth of reasons for ending up at the Center. The story humanizes women facing unplanned pregnancies and builds empathy for their difficult decisions. I’m glad I read it, and I would love to read more books on the topic—from either side.

Was this book the great bridge over the abortion divide the reviews claimed it was?

Not even close. Though the book claims to give voice to both sides, it unfairly misrepresents the pro-life position and, in many cases, is factually inaccurate.

Worth reading?

If you want a book that will keep your heart pounding from page one to “the end,” this is a great read. If you want a balanced view of abortion portrayed in fiction, keep looking.

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A Spark of Light

Before you comment

This is a book review, not an abortion debate. The comments section should reflect this.

  • If your comment pertains to this book, comment away.
  • If you have recommendations for other books—fiction, non-fiction, pro-choice, or pro-life—I’d love to read them in the comments.
  • If you want to pick a fight with people about abortion, skip the comments section and hop on twitter. You’ll find plenty of belligerent people there who will happily engage with you.

Anxious People

The last page arrives far too soon. Anxious People is a fine addition to the rest of his collection.

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Honestly, you should skip this review and buy the book, but in case you need a little encouragement first, read on.

Cover Description

“Looking at real estate isn’t usually a life-or-death situation, but an apartment open house becomes just that when a failed bank robber bursts in and takes a group of strangers hostage. The captives include a recently retired couple who relentlessly hunt down fixer-uppers to avoid the painful truth that they can’t fix up their own marriage. There’s a wealthy banker who has been too busy making money to care about anyone else and a young couple who are about to have their first child but can’t seem to agree on anything, from where they want to live to how they met in the first place. Add to the mix an eighty-seven-year-old woman who has lived long enough not to be afraid of someone waving a gun in her face, a flustered but still-read-to-make-a-deal real estate agent, and a mystery man who has locked himself in the apartment’s only bathroom, and you’ve got the worst group of hostages in the world.

“Each of them carries a lifetime of grievances, hurts, secrets, and passions that are ready to boil over. None of them is entirely who they appear to be. And all of them—the bank robber included—desperately crave some sort of rescue.”

Characters

As usual, Bachman’s characters are the perfect blend of quirky and deep. With wry humor, he captures humanity in all its messiness. I love that he doesn’t write about single characters, but entire communities. Each person has their own odd behaviors that are only understood when they reveal who they truly are. Each person impacts the person next to them. These characters don’t jump off the page, they tear the pages right from the binding. Peculiar as they are, everyone can say they know someone like them.

Plot

The plot alternates timelines and perspectives to reveal both the police investigation and the hostage’s situation. He weaves various small threads into a complete narrative, with every minor detail having a significant impact and no loose threads left at the end. The mystery of what happened to the bank robber is compelling, but the characters themselves are so entertaining, I would have finished this book even if the plot were a bunch of strangers watching paint dry.

Writing Style

Fredrik Backman is one of my favorite authors. Clichés flee the room when he enters it. His descriptions are unique and on-point. I’m not ashamed to admit that I paused my reading several times just to admire a sentence or phrase. He effortlessly captures the deep hurts people carry, the small ways they show their feelings even when they can’t say, “I love you” out loud. Every quirk has a reason, and even the vainest of characters is more than superficial.

Conclusion

I rarely review Fredrik Backman’s books because he is one of those authors whose books I will read without even scanning the description first. The last page arrives far too soon. His work has an addictive quality that leaves a lasting emotional impression. Anxious People is a fine addition to the rest of his collection.

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Anxious People

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