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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Book Discussion: My Sister's Keeper

Last week my Dominican class discussed My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult. This is the story of Anna's fight for medical emancipation. Anna's sister Kate was diagnosed with leukemia when she was 2. Kate's parents conceived Anna with the help of doctors to be a perfect bone marrow match and donor for Kate. The story begins as Anna is 13 and is again being asked to make another donation to Kate. Over the years she has had many procedures to help Kate, but this time, they need Anna to donate a kidney to Kate, or Kate will die. Anna visits a lawyer and begins the process to take over the medical decisions of her own body.

One of the most striking things about My Sister's Keeper is the way in which Picoult tells the story. She jumps around and relates the tale through many points of view. Anna, Kate, their brother Jesse, both parents, Anna's court appointed guardian, and her attorney (Campbell), all have their say. Our class discussed how this enhanced the story. Many students mentioned that they found some of the voices less sympathetic, and that at times the shifts in narrator was abrupt. But they all appreciated how each character had their own font; in fact, one student mentioned how the fonts were good visual representations of the characters. For example, the Mom spoke in bold and many found the Dad's font weak. And even those who were bothered by the constant shifting of pov, agreed that it helped to enhance the story, both because we saw many sides of the story, but also in that there was no one path that was absolutely correct here. The abrupt shifts, underlined the difficult nature of the issues.

The bulk of our discussion centered around the Mom, Sarah. She is the most complicated character. One student even called her a villain to unite all readers against someone. Sarah is the single-minded mother who, in her efforts to save Kate, has ignored her older son (he becomes an arsonist), shut out her husband, and created Anna just to be "spare parts" for Kate. She can never be happy because Kate is sick and she never takes anyone else's "trivial" pain seriously because, well her daughter has cancer. These are representations of the type of comments that were made. We developed a pro-Sarah contingent and a anti-Sarah one.

I tried to bring out some lively conversation about some of the other characters, but none caught on like the Sarah discussion. We did bring up Campbell, Anna's attorney, and one male student had been waiting the entire time to talk about how much he liked Campbell. Another student mentioned how Campbell and his back story were a welcome respite to the intense family drama between Anna and her parents. His self-deprecating humor and satiric comments are what kept her going.

One of the biggest issues surrounding this novel is the idea of genetic engineering and even stem cell research (using parts of discarded embryos to save living people). My students we less comfortable discussing this issue. One did mention that she was against stem cell research in general but did not go into detail. This can be an uncomfortable and personal topic, but it is always worth pursuing in an discussion of the book.

My Sister's Keeper is a great choice for any book group. I have used it many times, and since their are so many characters and issues, there is usually plenty to talk about.

Those who enjoyed this book may also want to check out another book club fav, The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards. During a snow storm twins are born. One has Down Syndrome. The father gives this child to the nurse and asks her to send the baby to an institution. The healthy son, a boy, is raised without knowledge of his sister. This novel spans 25 years and follows both families affected by this secret.

Those who were intrigued by the genetic engineering issues should try Double Helix by Nancy Werlin. Here an 18 year-old boy, working for a Nobel Prize winning geneticist, learns a shocking truth about himself and his family.

In terms of nonfiction. I would suggest a popular science treatment on stem cell research such as The Stem Cell Divide: The Facts, the Fiction, And the Fear Driving the Greatest Scientific, Political And Religious Debate of Our Time by Michael Bellomo. Many others are available and listed on the Amazon page.

Every Parent's Guide to the Law by Deborah Forman is also a good choice for those interested in Anna's legal battles. This book got very good reviews from professional sources and covers a wide range of topics, including emancipation of a minor.

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