Pandemic lockdown forces tourist to question her life in Jodi Picoult’s new novel

Sometimes it’s better to suspend preconceived plans and strike out a replacement.

A similar circumstance happened to me when I started reading a book that I had planned to write this January column about. After the first 100 pages, I regretted having to write a negative review and thus waste the readers’ time.

I decided to take a different path: a new book. In the past, I have read several Jodi Picoult novels, but none recently. I thought it was time to read another one, his latest “Wish You Were Here” turned out to be a compelling read.

"Wish you were Here," by Jodi Picoult.

Jodi Picoult has been an American writer specializing in family relations since the late 1980s. Her most famous novel is probably “My Sister’s Keeper”. There are over 40 million copies of his books in print. Lesser known information is that she wrote several issues of “Wonder Woman,” as well as the fact that she graduated from Harvard and Princeton.

Most novelists have tried to find ways to avoid the COVID pandemic, but in “Wish You Were Here,” Jodi found a way to both commemorate it and make sense of it.

Picoult says she struggled to get a novel to do justice to COVID-19 until she heard the true story of a Japanese tourist who got stranded in Machu Picchu in due to the COVID-19 epidemic. Instead of returning home to Japan, the tourist, named Jesse Katayama, ended up staying in the host community for months.

Picoult knew she couldn’t write about Machu Picchu because she had never been there, but she had been to the Galapagos Islands. She found a young Scotsman who had been trapped in the Galapagos during the first months of the COVID outbreak, interviewed him and the story took its rudder.

The protagonist of the novel, Diana O’Toole, is a very complex person. Her parents worked in the art world, and Diana was often left at home while they traveled. Diana decided she wanted a career with less travel, so she went to work in the art auction world, essentially convincing the wealthy with valuable works of art to sell them to the highest bidder.

In fact, Diana was a great planner, someone who believed she could chart her future. So, she mapped out her marriage at 30, her house and children at 35, traveled to specific places, made a lot of money, and then retired. She and her boyfriend Finn, who is currently in surgical residency, are on track to complete her plan.

Part of her plan is a vacation to the Galapagos Islands with her boyfriend Finn. Then came March 13, 2020, the pandemic. The hospital tells Finn he won’t be allowed to leave the hospital for vacation due to the looming pandemic.

The vacation has already been paid for, so Finn convinces Diana to go on vacation without him. Since the vacation is in Diana’s plan, she agrees.

Upon arrival, he is told that the island will close for two weeks. Her luxury accommodation is canceled, but most of all she must find a way to get by on an island that doesn’t have a stable Wi-Fi network or reliable cell service. That it is on the island where Darwin formed his theory of evolution by natural selection quickly loses its mystical aspect. She is the only tourist on Isabela Island.

Although Diana does interact with some of the locals, which is a story in itself, she has had a lonely existence without a phone or the internet. She begins to re-evaluate her life, her relationships, her choices and herself, wondering when she will return home if she will be the same person.

She wonders why she found the “things” in her life so precious. She confronted her “control freak” personality as two weeks turned into months.

Around this same time in the United States, my wife Lovila and I were hospitalized with COVID. During the long process of recovery, we asked ourselves many of the same questions that Diana asked herself, isolated on the island of Isabella.

If this skit was the full book, it would be interesting but not convincing. At this point the reader will encounter a huge twist that literally turns Diana (and the reader) upside down.

This novel can rival the fame of “My Sister’s Keeper”, which has been read by millions of people around the world. The film rights for “Wish You Were Here” have already been sold to Netflix. I consider myself lucky to have found this novel to replace a novel that did not suit me.

“Wish You Were Here” by Jodi Picoult, Ballantine Books, 321 pages, 2021, $ 28.99.

For February, I plan to revisit “A Natural History of the Future” by Rob Dunn.

Donus Roberts is a former teacher, current ABC Book Club Advisor, avid book reader / collector, owner of DDR Books. He encourages contact with readers at [email protected]