In true Jodi Picoult fashion, The Storyteller was a mix of characters that fit together towards the middle of the book and then the book raced toward the end. When thinking about my review while starting the book, I thought I would give it a less positive review compared to other Jodi Picoult books, but now that I have finished it, I think it still deserves to be placed on the shelf next to the rest of her books.
The story begins with a young woman with some major self-esteem issues. She works at a bakery in the night because in addition to loving to bake, she wants to avoid people. Sage (adequately named for a baker, but maybe a bit forced for a novel character) frets that other people will judge her for the scar down the side of her face, but when she meets an older man who comes in to the shop and stays after it closes she can’t continue to hide behind her flour and hair anymore. She begins to have a friendship, but the friendship gets rocky when he reveals that he was once a Nazi.
Picoult really displays her ability to create dynamic and real characters. There’s the bakery cashier who only speaks in haiku, which as you might imagine displays Picoult’s ability to write poetry. Josef, the former Nazi, is known by the rest of the town as the kind, retired German teacher who coached baseball and wrote letters of recommendation. The bakery owner is extremely nice to Sage but has an interesting past as an ex-nun. She now keeps a garden on a hill above the shop, called Our Daily Bread, where she is often found praying. She acts as sort of a spiritual guide for Sage, who is an atheist but comes from a Jewish family. Adam is the one character who is a bit flat because he plays the boyfriend who is also married. Personally I found his character a bit unnecessary except that he contrasts Leo, the detective. Leo is the guy that Sage contacts once Josef tells her that he regrets his actions as a Nazi and requests that she help him die.
This book centers around a couple of key questions.
1. Who can forgive?
Josef comes to Sage because he regrets his actions as a former Nazi and wants her forgiveness. Since she rejected Judaism, Sage doesn’t feel that it is her place to forgive him regardless of her family’s religion. She also argues that her forgiveness will not undue his actions. This logic is exactly the same logic that is keeping Sage from forgiving herself. We learn that Sage blames herself for her mother’s death, which is why Sage hides from the world. This is also why Sage has a relationship with a man already married; she doesn’t see herself worth anything more.
2. How powerful are stories?
Interspersed between narratives are short chunks of what is obviously a different story about a vampire falling in love with a girl (better than Twilight I promise). Towards the middle of the book, we learn that this story was written by a Jewish girl living during World War 2. I think this question is what makes me think this book is worth reading. The girl writing this story uses the story throughout her entire life in the ghetto and concentration camps to encourage other people and to save her life. While in the camp, she tells the story to the other inmates as a way of enticing them to live one more day, if only to hear the next part of the story. At one point, her whole existence in the camp is based on her writing ten more pages a day to present to a curious officer. The story literally saves her life. Later, she trades the journal where the story was kept for her life.
3. When can the past stop dictating the present and future?
Josef has created an entirely new life for himself in the United States, but he can’t quite seem to shake his past from his mind. Sage lives in isolation because she can’t let go of her past. Sage’s grandmother won’t talk about her past because it is so full of pain. So many characters in this book let the past tell them how to live in the present and the future. Sage has to figure out how to first learn about the past and then how to let it guide but not control the future. She learns this for herself and others throughout the course of the book.
Overall I would give this book a 3.5 out of 5 stars. It ends really well; in fact I was almost late to work because I wanted to finish reading it. The book, though, starts sort of slow and I wasn’t a huge fan of some of the characters. Some of the sub-plot was unnecessary and distracting.