I read this book admittedly eleven years late to the mark, but after picking it up from the WHSmiths clearance sale as a light read for the train to college, I instantly became captivated. My Sister’s Keeper is a bittersweet reflection on family, love and loss, whilst also profoundly exploring the ethics of organ donation.
Warning: spoilers ahead!!
The protagonist of My Sister’s Keeper, Anna, is no ordinary thirteen year old. Matured and friendless by her sister Kate’s cancer, she serves as her lynchpin, having donated blood, bone marrow, platelets and more ever since birth. A birth that was planned not in the way that most pregnancies are; Anna was meticulously genetically designed by her parents, Sarah and Brian, to be a perfect match for Kate. This parasitic relationship climaxes when Anna is expected to donate a kidney to Kate, and she responds by filing a lawsuit against her parents for the rights to her own body.
Each character’s context and past effectively serves meaning to the central question of the novel: is it ethical to have a child to save another? Picoult’s use of multi-narrative voices from said characters extends to all facets of arguments both for and against this, ultimately, impossible question.
Despite the characters undoubtedly serving a purpose to the crux of the novel, I did notice some cliches to their stories, making them almost caricatures of what could be intriguing, diverse people. Julia Romano, for example, who serves as Anna’s guardian ad litem during the court case, has the generic Breakfast Club-like love story with Anna’s lawyer, Campbell Alexander, of a popular, rich jock who falls in love with the kooky, mysterious new girl, only for them to dramatically end over class separation. Their reunion was an interesting and complex side story, yet it never detracted from the central plot that engrossed my mind.
Jesse, the oldest, forgotten, child, despite contributing very little to the story, perfectly epitomises the consequences of neglect. Living in the shadow of Kate’s cancer leads him to the classic musts of any juvenile delinquent: drugs, arson, and general apathy. He is separated from the family not only emotionally; he physically lives apart in a detached annex. For all of Kate’s pain with cancer, Anna’s mistreatment, Sarah and Brian’s moral and marital conflict, I found myself sympathizing with Jesse a great deal; his character, a delinquent with hidden, underdeveloped, malnourished talents and arrested development at the hands of his neglectful parents reflects the education systems’ lack of ability to nurture those who need it most.
Dedicating a chapter to each character allows the reader to play the devils’ advocate; whilst my sympathy was steadfast with Anna, I found myself leaning towards even Anna’s mother, Sarah, who is demonised throughout the book for her ruthless pragmatic nature to save Kate’s life. This demonisation was, whilst unfair, understandable, however; Sarah has little regard for anything that is not Kate or in relation to Kate, leading her to abandon her career, neglect her marriage, and lose sight of life.
Picoult punctuates the sections of My Sisters’ Keeper with quotes and short poems from Milton, Shakespeare, D.H. Lawrence and more, all containing allusions to images of fire and explosions, reflecting the idea that the family is burning itself out on effort upon effort to save Kate’s life and stay intact. The imagery in the book is remarkably beautiful, yet destructive.
A style of Picoult I initially liked, but after a while tired of, was her use of anecdotes. The book structured non-linearly for context, however the long winded reflections of the past to lead up to a single philosophical statement became tiring and distracted from the story. But if this book transfixes you as much as it did for me, you will still turn each page with anticipation, bated breath and unblinking eyes.
Ultimately, this book is a reflection on the importance of family, the contrast between what is legally right and what is morally right, and a damn cathartic experience. For reading it, I felt wholly emotionally exhausted, tangled in semantics and as morally conflicted as the Fitzgeralds themselves. The distinct atmospheric sadness of it will never leave you.