In her 15th novel, New Hampshire author Jodi Picoult once again raises controversial issues and satisfies the reader. Change of Heart is complex, daring, well-researched, and a darn good read. It involves family dynamics, loss, a community’s impact on families, the role of religion in considering crime and punishment, and a close look at the underbelly of society. The death penalty’s existence and the actual workings of killing a person for a heinous crime are closely examined.
The Nealon family is happy with its two children, mother June, and her second husband, Kurt, a policeman. Then everything changes overnight. A young man, Shay Bourne, kills Kurt and one of their daughters, Elizabeth, in cold blood. June is left with one child,
11-year-old Claire, lots of questions, and almost too much heartbreak to survive.
As if things aren’t difficult enough, June’s remaining daughter has a faulty heart. Claire will die of congestive heart failure if no one can provide an appropriate heart. The only person who can? Her father’s and her sister’s murderer. Can June and her daughter forgive his actions and accept this heart, which Shay wants to give them after he is killed, to keep the remaining daughter alive? And as he is sentenced to death, how ought he to die to keep his heart intact and alive?
An unusual twist is that Shay apparently has almost supernatural powers, discovered while he is jailed. He becomes a nationally known cult figure.
An important character is Father Michael, a priest who comes to know and to understand Shay - and to question his
own religious faith and values based on this relationship. When he meets Shay, he reflects,
“This double murderer, this monster, looked like the water polo team captain who had sat next to me in an economics seminar last semester. He resembled the deliveryman from the pizza place that had a thin crust, the kind I liked… In other words, he didn’t look the way I figured a killer would look, if I ever ran across one. He could have been any other kid in his twenties. He could have been me.”
Another sympathetic character, Lucius, a co-prisoner, is an artistic man dying of AIDS. When Shay moves into the neighboring cell, Lucius thinks, “They’d moved Shay Bourne right next door to someone else serving a death sentence.” Maggie, an ACLU lawyer who lives alone with a rabbit and takes on Shay’s case, also plays a central role in the book.
Several changes of heart exist in this narrative – a real, physical exchange of an organ; a change in attitude toward the death penalty; a change in faith;
and a change regarding the notion of what constitutes reason to commit a murder, among them.
This reader was first introduced to Jodi Picoult by a young college student who was completely enamored of all the novelist’s works. As I am 30 years older and a much more experienced reader, I assumed Picoult’s work was chick lit. I was wrong: these are not light reading. Picoult’s plots and her extensive research continue to impress in each book I’ve read. While writing Change of Heart, she visited inmates on death row and remains a pen pal to one such man. She is a solid writer who takes her projects seriously and provokes passionate discussion. That said, her work would certainly mostly appeal to women, and probably most of all to young women beginning to consider life’s ethical issues.
Picoult forces her readers to consider unusual, morally charged issues, and people many of us would rather not know or are afraid to know. In this novel, Shay Bourne has had a terrible life
- no surprises there - but the reader comes to understand the consequences of that life, the reasons for his crime and the remaining goodness in the man’s heart as he prepares to die.
If you haven’t read Picoult's work, Change of Heart is representative. Also highly recommended are Nineteen Minutes, about a misunderstood young man who perpetrates a high-school shooting in his small town, and My Sister’s Keeper, in which a young teenager must make an ethical decision - whether
or not to donate a kidney to her sibling with leukemia to keep her alive but possibly harm her own health or even risk her own life. Picoult’s novels keep this reader sitting on the edge of her chair.