Wish You Were Here is most definitely a novel for our times. It is about the Covid experience, and so much more. An up-to-date twin tale of realism and transcendentalism wrapped into a wonderfully engaging story. The structure is unusual and nearly perfect. It’s a 120,000 word page-turner.
There is teenage self-harm, attempted suicide, graphic descriptions of Covid deaths and of the trauma experienced by doctors working long shifts in desperate efforts to save patients. But in context, these potentially distressing scenes fade into the larger story. The overall feeling is uplifting and positive. Struggles sometimes lead to positive change; disasters sometimes lead to renewal.
American author Jodi Picoult’s extensive list of acknowledgements at the end demonstrates that she has done her homework. She contacted health professionals, Covid survivors, neurologists and many others to research the story. She seems to have a firm grasp of what happens to Covid patients while sedated, particularly the hallucinations of being another person or being in another place. There is also a description of the final recollections of the protagonist’s mother who has dementia. This scene seems contrived and unbelievable, created only to fit in with the other story lines. But then, who can question the workings of the brain at such times?Jodi knows well the two key settings, New York city, near her home, and the Galapagos, where she has visited. Her descriptions of the Darwinian concept and the life of the people and animals on the islands is engrossing.
The protagonist is Diana O’Toole, a commercial art specialist at Sotheby’s in New York. Her life is planned. She expects to advance in the cutthroat world of auction houses, marry her doctor boyfriend, have a beautiful big house and a couple of children. Then Covid strikes. Chaos controls the city. Turmoil controls Diana’s brain as she suffers under the ventilator. The ending is a perfect conclusion to the complex story, particularly the delightfully humorous twist in the very last sentence. It would be a spoiler to tell much more about what happens in the story.
The author’s five page note at the end is open and honest. Jodi explains that she has asthma. When Covid arrived in her area, she did not leave her home for over a year, and both her children got Covid. “I was at home, paralysed with fear. I couldn’t breathe well on a good day; I couldn’t imagine what Covid would do to my lungs. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t even read.” Then one day she saw a news item about a man stranded on a remote tourist location because of lockdown. “Suddenly, I knew how to write about Covid.”
This novel is so much more than a Covid story. It has big ideas wrapped in beautiful descriptive writing. It is challenging and comforting at the same time.
Wish You Were Here will probably become a Book Club favourite. Jodi is a #1 New York Times best-selling author of twenty-seven novels.
Wish You Were Here was published by Ballantine Books in the USA and published in Australia by Allen & Unwin, 2021
Featured image : Author Jodi Picoult
Review by Carol Dance