Monday, June 22, 2009

Parenting, Picoult-style

In Picoult’s fiction we rarely encounter characterologically bad parents. Instead, we meet mothers and fathers who try and fail, baroquely, to meet the current standards of caring for children — people who affect the deepest concern, who have absorbed the therapeutic language of talk shows and women’s magazines but who are congenitally unable to implement the idiom.

-"Jodi Picoult and the Anxious Parent," Ginia Bellafante, NY Times, June 17

Excuse my rusty citation skills. I liked this article, which was mostly an interview with the author. It was an interesting look at how she's built her own ouvre--all her books are pretty much the same, and here's how.

The quote above interested me, though, because the author's take on what she does is so different than what I saw. It's a little embarrassing to admit this, because I think she's right, and by extension I'm pretty blind to a lot of the nuance in the world. But I've always seen Picoult's books as stories in which everyone is doing their best to do the right thing, and yet everything turns out horribly anyway. Human frailty and bad luck conspire to make a mess of everything, in spite of excellent parenting--this is how I would have encapsulated what I thought she was doing.

This author, however, seems to be saying that the message is closer to "bad parenting practice can look a lot like good parenting theory. I can't really argue with that, and looking back, I can see that Jodi Picoult gets a lot more credit if you look at it that way. In my theory, all these people are trying their best, and it's a weakness of the parenting system that that keeps resulting in something awful. In her theory, these parents think they're trying, but really they're being controlling, or gentle but oblivious, or some other innocuous looking but really shattering parenting trait. The concerned, doting mother in My Sister's Keeper, for example, is not making the best of a bad situation and trying to save her children. She's obsessing over the one daughter at the expense of the others.

Here's the thing: I had seen this, and thought of it as a failing of the author. I had thought that she was backing these parents up, that the omniscient third person narrator was looking at them benevolantly, rather than critically. I think I might have been wrong, and, while this might not change my enjoyment of the stories, it certainly changes the reading. It makes sense, then to see, as the Times writer does, that the situation in My Sister's Keeper goes off the rails in a way that is "meant to serve as a cosmic rebuke to the mother’s stilted management."

I don't think that this explanation covers everything, though. All of her stories are based around a major secret that is being kept by one of the characters (as I've mentioned before, sometimes it's being kept for NO EARTHLY REASON, e.g. Vanishing Acts, The Pact). Although sometimes the parents have secrets of their own, the world-shattering secrets in these books almost invariably belong to the kids. I can't help but see in this pattern a statement to the effect of, "even good, concerned parents can't know everything about their kids, and sometimes those secrets are deadly." The secret-keeping on the part of the kids often exonerates the parents--they really were doing a good job, but they were deliberately fooled.

I won't say I was entirely wrong about her, but I will say that I think I wasn't looking deep enough. And as I said, that's embarrassing--I remember, after seeing the movie The Hours, making a comment about being annoyed at how Meryl Streep's character's inability to take action had annoyed me. Someone replied that I wasn't very sympathetic to depression, and I was absolutely humiliated to realize that, though I had recognized that the other two characters were depressed, I had not noticed that that was the whole point of the movie.

Point being, I can be a total moron. I'm amazed that you're still reading this. Thank you for your patience.

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