The Tenth Circle by Jodi Picoult
This is a story of a family where the mother is a college professor specializing in Dante—one of her most popular classes gets students reading The Inferno and considering its applicability to contemporary life and a father who's a cartoonist and emerging writer of graphic novels. He has been the stay-at-home dad, meeting the needs of the daughter, Trixie (whose real name is Beatrice—straight out of Dante), while he draws and deals with his editors at Marvel from home. The bond between father and daughter is, not surprisingly, unusually strong. The story begins with a prologue—a false alarm when Daniel thinks Trixie, a four-year-old in a stroller, is lost in a crowd. The main action begins when 14-year old Trixie comes home from a party, disheveled and bloody, and tells her father she’s been raped. Daniel calls Laura who’s not at home at 2:30 AM but with her lover, a student poet from her class. Not a promising start to appeal to my interests, but I ended up reading the whole book in one night and admiring a great many aspects of it.
First of all, it’s extremely well plotted. I must say that serious novelists these days are not usually as good as the popular ones with plot. The novelist who attempts “serious literature” is likely not only to subordinate plot to other elements of the fiction but to do it downright badly. So badly that it’s become almost an axiom these days that if you read a serious novel you can’t expect a good or even a coherent plot. A “serious novel” almost by definition focuses on something else: language, point of view, ideas, atmosphere, structure, maybe character, etc. But like others who read a lot, I love a good story and have never given up reading pop lit. Usually, though, I turn to thrillers or mysteries and not to romance or other stuff aimed at women. The ending of this novel left something to be desired, though, speaking of plot--it went out with a whimper.
Secondly, Picoult can write. Her style is fast-moving and crisp with images and metaphors that fit both the characters and the audience Picoult is targeting. She describes Trixie as trying to concentrate in class, knowing the whole school is talking about her: “In English, she focused on the printed text in her book until the letters jumped like popcorn in a skillet.” Later that day, “the mass of students split like amoebas into socially polarized groups”. Fresh and original, but not startling or literary. This is the antithesis of “poetic writing” and I don’t mean that as a veiled criticism. The combination of plot and a sharp, spare style that always moves the action forward—no pauses for bits of atmosphere that tempts the reader to skip on ahead—seems to me a major attraction to Picoult’s fiction.
The third major element is that the characters and the plot are not just psychologically compelling—which they are—but elemental. I’m tempted to ask whether Picoult consults screen writer/writing coach Christopher Vogler (author of The Writer’s Journey) who stresses the power of mythic elements in stories. The overt topics Picoult handles—as I’ve seen in this book and heard about in others—address contemporary issues like date rape, teen suicide, marital infidelity and even, in this one, but does so in very fundamental terms so that Trixie’s rape quickly becomes both literally and figuratively a matter of life, death, love, soul mates, the hidden self, and revenge. Publishers tout that Picoult’s novels make readers think. That’s true at some level, but what it makes readers think about is the role of basic instincts and emotions which break out from behind social facades at critical moments. Picoult doesn’t make it all high brow and philosophical either; the concepts are simple and clear: “There is a fine line between love and hate, you heard that cliché all the time. But no one told you that the moment you crossed it would be the one you least expected. You’d fall in love and crack open a secret door to let your soul mate in. You just never expected such closeness, one day, to feel like an intrusion.”
Even the names in this novel are elemental: Laura is the name of the woman to whom Petrarch wrote sonnets and Beatrice, of course, is Dante’s muse. Daniel, the father, recalls Daniel the prophet from the Old Testament. One recalls Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Jason, the teen athlete and rapist, suggests Jason Golden Fleece fame…. And Trixie is a trickster as in Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces—in this novel a catalyst for action by others, especially her parents.
Daniel’s graphic story is included in the text. An interesting concept. Even the graphic novel— complete with superhero and quest—is not beyond Picoult's up-to-date subject matter. I'm not sure it works all that well as story, but the illustrations have their place in the text)
I am not the audience for a novel like this and will probably not read any more, but I’m glad I read this one so I recognize why people like it and recognize the appeal of this writer’s fictional success.