Since high school Jodi Picoult has been one of my favorite writers. I have read every book she’s had published. I also revisit them. One of her first novels Songs of a Humpback Whale has always been particularly special to me. This year I chose to revisit it and found that I don’t really love it the same way.
The story, told from five different voices, follows a mother and daughter — as they run away from home and drive across country; it is supposed to be a story about love. They travel to Sam’s apple orchard where Jane’s brother Joley works. Jane promises “I’ll go home and be the ideal wife, the perfect mother. I’ll do everything I’ve been doing and i won’t ever bring this up again. i’ll live the most ordinary life there ever was, just as long as you promise me that i’ll get five minutes of wonderful before it’s all over” (234). After time at the orchard they both find love. Rebecca falls in love with Hadley who works on the farm as well. While Jane and Sam become indivisible. Neither of these relationships were easy. Rebecca is 16, while Hadley and Sam are both 25. Their age difference is a main source of the discomfort everyone has with their relationship. Her mother has a different set of problems entirely. Though she left her husband, Oliver, she still feels obligated to the marriage and ultimately to him. Reading this at 16, it was easy to identify with Rebecca and the craving to be an adult with adult relationships and responsibilities but as I’ve grown with this novel, it becomes apparent that there is no guidance around what healthy forms of love look like or healthy relationships. The novel doesn’t capture the unhealthy nature of their marriage or establish Oliver’s predatory behavior as not okay. The novel is comfortable continuously characterizing Rebecca as an adult until she acts like one and then she is shamed. It is important to know that Jane leaves her husband twice. The first time she left he used Rebecca and threatened to have her arrested if she did not come back. Instead she sent only Rebecca, and her plane crashed. Seeing the crash as a sign, she kept her family whole for her daughter. The second time she leaves is after an argument where he purposely triggers her, she slaps him and scares herself and leaves. When she leaves she knows that Oliver will come after her. Track her. He is a scientist that tracks the migration patterns of whales. He does the same with her when she leaves. Jane feels like she doesn’t deserve Sam. That her life as a wife – as unhappy as it is- is the best thing for her daughter. Throughout the varying narratives this sentiment is echoed, yet no one liked Oliver- not even Rebecca.
When Oliver arrives to bring his wife and daughter home, chaos ensues and results in Hadley’s death. After watching Rebecca grieve the loss of Hadley, Jane decides if her daughter isn’t allowed to have love, then she is not either and leaves her relationship with Sam on the apple orchard. Oliver, Jane and Rebecca drive home, and even on this drive, both women are aware of how oblivious Oliver is to how much they don’t want to be there. How different they’ve become, and how much of an outsider he is in their world. This is how the books ends. I used to read this book and think it was romantically tragic; then I took women’s literature and acquired a new lense. When I returned to this text this year it wasn’t romantic, it was a problematic narrative of a series of unhealthy relationships called something beautiful. At 21, the fact that this book ends with her once again returning to this relationship that everyone knows isn’t good for her, yet everyone acts like this is the only option. Being a single mother is an option. Having a life that makes you happy is important. This book reinforces the idea that neither of these women’s feelings about the way they should live their lives matters, and while I will always love Jodi Picoult’s writing, this narrative shows up in literature often and consistently helps reinforces dominant gender roles. I can’t be apart of allowing women to believe that she should spend her whole life unhappy for the sake of someone who isn’t doing the same for her.