Sing You Home is the eighteenth novel by Jodi Picoult. You can listen to a podcast by Jodi Picoult on Sing You Home, you can read an extract from the beginning of Sing You Home, and you can watch an interview with Jodi Picoult on Ellen.
Exploring an Ethical Dilemma – Jodi Picoult Style
The central ethical dilemma in Sing You Home is a question of now that same-sex female couples are medically able to have a baby: should they have a baby or should they be allowed to? While this becomes the central question of the plot, underlying it are the wider questions, as Jodi Picoult put it in her podcast on Sing You Home: “What does it mean to be gay in America, and how do we define a family?”
In true Jodi Picoult style, it is not not as simple and generalised as presenting two sides and encouraging a reader to pick one:
Zoe was unable to carry a baby the full term of a pregnancy through ten years of repeated attempts while with Max.
Zoe’s obsession to try again for a baby despite miscarriages, a still birth and the toll it was taking on her and Max’s marriage and finances was why they divorced.
Since their divorce Max has become involved the Eternal Glory Church, believes that people in same-sex relationships will go to Hell and wants to save Zoe’s soul because he genuinely still cares for her.
Zoe’s new partner, Vanessa, is completely non-religious whereas Zoe is more agnostic and neither embraces nor condemns religions.
Zoe and Vanessa have a stronger and happier relationship in many ways than Zoe and Max had.
When Zoe and Vanessa seek permission to impregnate Vanessa with an embryo left over from Zoe and Max’s attempts at IVF, Max takes legal action and Eternal Glory Church take protest action.
In exploring the central ethical dilemma, Jodi Picoult also explores a range of other issues. Are homosexuals born that way or is it a choice? Are heterosexuals born that way or is it a choice? Is falling in love a matter of falling in love first with a person, regardless of whether they are female or male? Should someone who has had two miscarriages and a still birth get pregnant again? Should someone be able to use an embryo created with their former partner to have a child with their new partner? Should people be able to have freedom of religion, including not only choosing between religions but also choosing no religion? If people have freedom to have particular beliefs or affiliations, to what extent should they be able to act on those beliefs in ways that impact others?
As with Jodi Picoult’s other novels, it is not a matter of her advocating one opinion and disparaging another with her novel but exploring a range of ideas with a range of characters to explore a mulifacteted understanding of why the characters think and behave as they do. A good comparison for this aspect of Jodi Picoult’s novels is Paul Haggis’s movies: for example, his multifaceted exploration of racism in Crash (as screenwriter/director), of boxing in Million Dollar Baby (as screenwriter), marital infidelity in The Last Kiss (as screenwriter/director), and of World War 2 in Flags of Our Fathers (as co-screenwriter) and Letters From Iwo Jima (as co-story writer). Jodi Picoult has explored topics such as terminal illness in My Sister’s Keeper, Asperger syndrome in House Rules, date rape in The Tenth Circle, and a school shooting in Nineteen Minutes. However, all Jodi Picoult’s novels are also primarily about family, relationships and love – and tend to have a medical and legal dimension.
I personally would have liked to see Jodi Picoult tackle this focussing on the personal, medical and legal concerns between the characters without bringing in a religious aspect, although I understand why she would include this in the context of answering: “What does it mean to be gay in America, and how do we define a family?” Fortunately, the personal, medical and legal concerns are there alongside the religious dimension and provide enough in addition to the religion versus same-sex relationships aspect to make an interesting novel.
In Sing You Home, Jodi Picoult switches between three main characters; Zoe, Max and Vanessa. By alternating the narrator each chapter, she allows a reader to alternately get access to the thoughts of a particular character in one chapter and access to the thoughts of each of the other main characters in other chapters. In this way, a reader can compare the thoughts and actions of different characters at different points in the story and mentally fill in the gaps. For example, as a reader progresses through the novel, they will be able to increasingly have a good in a Vanessa chapter what Max’s thoughts are likely to be based on his actions, compare that with Vanessa’s thoughts about Max’s actions and affirm or alter these ideas when a reader gets to Max’s next chapter and again has access to his thoughts.
Use of Music
Music is also a central part of Sing You Home. Zoe is a music therapist; she does what she can to help patients ranging from troubled teens, to dying children and their families, burn victims, and elderly dementia patients. Zoe’s work give plenty of opportunity for her to think about and demonstrate many ways in which people connect with and respond to music.
Sing You Home also comes with a soundtrack, available for free on Jodi Picoult’s website. Between chapters are pages each with the name of a song on it and the book is designed for a reader to listen to each song as a reader gets to a particular part in the book. Although Jodi mentions at the start that that is just one option and she encourages each reader to choose how they want to experience the novel and the songs. Listened to as a reader progresses through the novel, the songs become more and more infused with meaning as the reader becomes more and more familiar with Zoe’s character.
Sing You Home is another well written novel by Jodi Picoult in which she explores a multifaceted ethical dilemma, and again it is on a controversial issue which is bound to attract discussion and debate. While Jodi Picoult is known for her ethical dilemmas and often controversial subject matter, it is all the little everyday details and subtle ways she builds up realistic characters and relationships that make her writing work so well. The soundtrack, especially in the context of the importance of music in Zoe’s life, is a welcome inclusion and adds a new dimension to the novel.
There will no doubt be a lot of reviews applauding Jodi Picoult’s advocacy of the rights of people in same-sex relationships in Sing You Home. However, I prefer to think of Sing You Home as a compelling novel about family, relationships and love – just like Jodi Picoult’s other novels – in which two characters in a loving relationship wanting to start a family happen to both be female.
The Australian Literature Review