Monday, July 7, 2008

My Sister's Keeper

This is the first novel we've written about on Pallimed: Arts & Humanities. It would be impossible to completely review every detail of such a long and complicated work. I'll try to hit some of the more interesting aspects of the characters and plot.

My Sister’s Keeper is a novel by Jodi Picoult. This is the story of a family dealing with the chronic, life-threatening illness of one of their daughters. Kate was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia at age 3. In desperation for a donor for Kate, her parents decide to have another baby, Anna, who is created to be a perfect genetic match for Kate. The story goes back and forth between present day (when Anna is 13) and the past, reviewing the history of Kate’s illness and how that has effected Anna's life. The present day storyline follows Anna as she files to become medically emancipated from her parents. After years of donating parts of herself to Kate, Anna decided to draw a line. She did not want to be forced into donating a kidney.

Picoult puts a lot of work into developing the characters of the book. Chapters of the novel are written from the perspectives of the different characters. Brian (Anna’s father) is a firefighter. His role seems to be putting out the fires that his family members start (literally and symbolically). Brian is also a star buff. The author incorporates star mythology into the story. Anna’s name is actually Andromeda, the princess in Greek mythology who was to be sacrificed to a sea monster as punishment for her mother’s bragging. Like the princess Andromeda, Anna was also giving up her life for her mother, who has been driving all of Kate's medical care.

Through her court case, Anna is forced to confront her parents with the real reasons she filed her lawsuit. Her mother has to come to terms with Kate’s illness and the possibility that Kate might die.

Warning: Spoiler Ahead. Highlight to read.

*The story takes a sudden and dramatic turn when, after winning her court case, Anna is involved in a car accident and is declared brain dead. Her kidney is donated to Kate and their parents are left to turn off the ventilator. (It actually seemed a bit too dramatic for me.)

Making parents turn off the ventilator themselves makes for good drama in a novel but not so realistic. Also, this happens after they donate her organs. It talks about feeling her pulse stop and the monitor flatline. Did they just donate her kidney? Not her heart? And they bring her back to the ICU after the donation so that the ventilator can be shut off? Not very realistic with the organ donation process.

The epilogue is written from Kate’s point of view after Anna’s death. Kate blames herself as Anna wouldn't have been in the car if it had not been for the lawsuit.

So in the end, who is the “sister” of the title My Sister's Keeper? Is it Anna who is the keeper of Kate or Kate who is the keeper of Anna? Anna’s donations kept Kate alive for years. Throughout the story I always assumed that Anna was her “sister’s keeper”. In the end, Anna still lives on through all she has donated to Kate. So Kate is essentially keeping Anna alive.

The story brings up ethical issues of genetics and creating “designer babies”. Apparently Jodi Picoult became interested in the topic while doing research on eugenics. It balances this with the plight of parents who would do anything to save their dying child. It also deals with the rights of children to have say over their own bodies and make their own health care decisions. It seems at first that this is the predominant theme in the book. Later it is apparent that it’s more about parents coming to terms with their daughter's potentially terminal illness. When is it ok to say enough?

This is just a superficial overview of this book. Despite a couple medical inaccuracies at the end, I would recommend it. There is a plan to turn this novel into a film later this year.

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