Plain and Simple

June 10, 2008 at 1:03 am Leave a comment

“There’s no way for me to make you understand what it means to be Plain, because most people can’t see past the buggies and the funny clothes to the beliefs that really identify the Amish. But a murder charge—well, it’s an English thing.”

My mother reads a lot of books about Amish people, and I don’t know why. They all seem to involve a young man and a young woman who fall in love, but one is an Englischer and one is Plain so their romance is impossible. Sometimes the woman has been shunned from the Order and falls in love with an English man, only to realize that she’s really Plain at heart. Usually someone comes to the Lord.

So when my mother plunked Plain Truth down on my dresser (on top of the baked good mysteries), I teased her mercilessly. It wasn’t until I read that Jodi Picoult has an A.B. in Creative Writing from Princeton and a master’s from Harvard that I started to gain some respect for her.

If everyone who comes out of Princeton can write like this, I think we should round up all those romance novelists and make them take a few courses. Picoult takes the reader into the center of Amish culture and exposes the humanity behind all the rules and restrictions. The woman could have been a journalist, with all the research that must have gone into this book, and the realism with which she paints everyday life in a Plain community. That being said, I’m glad she decided to be a novelist.

The plot is good. I am used to being able to guess what the outcome of any given book is going to be, with the exception of Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris and a few select others. And while there were hints through Plain Truth about the real story behind the dead baby in the barn, I have to say, I was stunned when I discovered what happened. Picoult says in the readers guide that she found it really challenging not to have the end be a Scooby-Doo moment – to place tiny clues throughout the narrative so the conclusion made sense. I don’t think she should have worried, because she did it absolutely perfectly.

The characters aren’t bad, either. I liked Ellie, the big-city lawyer, and her psychiatrist friend/lover, Dr. Cooper (he of the coffee and peppermint gum, who goes by the inane nickname of Coop throughout the entire novel). What I loved about this pairing was that Picoult was keenly aware of whenever she was on the edge of a too-soppy moment.

In one courtroom scene where Ellie has Coop on the stand and they begin talking about their relationship through the guise of the case, in a way that is perhaps a little overdrawn, the judge wryly asks Ellie to please change the channel from As the World Turns back to The People’s Court. It’s that kind of self-awareness that keeps Picoult from being just another feel-good women’s fiction writer.

I liked the sympathy Picoult has for her other characters, too, including the Plain boyfriend of the woman who had the baby in the barn, who easily could have been just a dolt or a kind of Amish jock – handsome, but nothing in his head. Picoult gives him feelings and ambitions and an amazing sense of humanity, especially once he’s on the stand in the courtroom.

This is most definitely the best book my mother has made me read so far. While I’m not sure if I’d read it over again (though I probably would), I am definitely going to be on the lookout for more of Jodi Picoult’s books – and I’ll be less hesitant next time Mom tries to make me read something. Maybe.

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Entry filed under: Contemporary Fiction.

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