I’m often guilty of forgetting to live in the moment. Instead of being fully present, I’m counting down the minutes to the weekend, making a to-do list, or plotting out a story. I try to be in the here and now, but sometimes my brain just won’t shut up.
Sometimes, I read like I live. If a book has a twisting, captivating plot and I’m itching to know what happens, I can’t help it. I speed read instead of savor. That’s why I usually read books more than once.
In addition to my mad Stephen King re-read spree, I’ve been catching up on the many works I’ve missed by another favorite author, Jodi Picoult. In the last month or so, I’ve read both “Plain Truth” and “House Rules.” I was reminded right away of how much I enjoy her writing style and the life she breathes into her characters. But I’ve also realized that when reading Picoult, I’m more guilty than ever of the speed read.
If you’ve read Picoult, you know her style. Her plots are as varied as the weather in Maryland, but her plots and characters are always intricate. In “Plain Truth,” an Amish teen is accused of murdering her newborn. In “House Rules,” a high school boy with Aspberger’s syndrome is on trial for the suspected murder of a college girl.
With plots like those, how could you not be anxious to find out how things end? Oddly, I pretty much had things figured out roughly halfway through in both – and no, I didn’t peek. Even so, I was still so anxious to see how everyone fared that I plowed forward like someone in a race. On the one hand, that speaks to the strength of Picoult’s writing. Even if you’ve figured out the missing pieces of the puzzle, you’re still dying to know how everyone deals with the outcome. You care about these imaginary people.
The downside for me is that if I’m not careful, I race through some of her most powerful writing.
In Picoult’s books, all the characters get a say. In Plain Truth, you heard from the accused teen, her lawyer, her mother, her boyfriend, and many others. In House Rules, Jacob, the accused boy with Aspbergers, spoke up, along with his mother, his brother, his lawyer and the lead police investigator.
Picoult shows you how everyone is doing in the moment, but gives you snippets of their past, as well. Everyone shares major life events and seemingly insignficant moments. Katie, the Amish teen, goes back to the loss of her sister over and over again. Jacob, his mother and brother all take you through their earlier years. By the end of the novel, you’ve felt the weight that a single mother of an Aspbergers child carries. You know how it feels to be the younger sibling of a special needs child, forced to grow up way too soon because your brother’s needs are all-consuming. You know what it might feel like to be 16 and not have friends because bringing someone home to dinner on Fridays, when your mother only makes blue food to keep your brother from a meltdown, is just too embarrassing.
You even get to see the loud, buzzing, flashing, overactive world through the eyes of Jacob himself.
These flashbacks are essential to the stories. They add the dimensions to these people that make you care what happens to them. Creating the beauty, tenderness, humor or pain in these moments is where Picoult shines the brightest.
But if you read like me, you might just deprive yourself of the power in those snippets on your mad dash to the finish line. A kid enjoys the sparkling ornaments on a Christmas tree, and the whimsy of leaving cookies and milk for Santa. But let’s face it – true appreciation of those moments is often just a little dulled by the anticipation of creeping downstairs on Christmas morning.
For me, that’s what reading these two Picoult novels was like. I KNEW I should savor those flashback moments, but I was too damn intrigued by the finish line to stop trotting and start strolling. I will have to return to these books again and savor them like a fine wine.
I used to think being a top-notch writer meant holding your reader in the moment every step of the way. But I wouldn’t have had Picoult do anything differently to keep me there. So maybe top-notch writing is also telling it well enough that even if your reader jogged the trail at an excited pace on her first hike, she’ll return for a meandering stroll, and take time to smell the flowers on the second trip.