On the day her father died, seven-year-old Zoe Baxter buried her precious doll, Sweet Cindy, in her neighbor's yard. This symbolic act by a young girl proves particularly poignant in Jodi Picoult's latest novel, SING YOU HOME.
"Every life has a soundtrack. All you have to do is listen." Thus begins the telling of Zoe's story. At age 41, Zoe works as a music therapist sharing her gift of song with the less fortunate residents of local hospitals, schools and senior centers. She lives by the credo that music is the language of memory, which is particularly ironic since her own past will soon collide with her present in ways she never would have expected.
When Zoe was married to Max, their lives went along as expected until the tragedies of several miscarriages put them in a position where they had to take drastic measures if they were ever going to conceive a child together. In vitro treatments produced three viable embryos for the couple --- but by that time, their relationship was already crumbling under the pressure of years of tragedy. Max becomes distant and decides not only does he not want to follow through on the in vitro process, he no longer wishes to be with Zoe.
They represent themselves at an uncontested, mutual divorce and part ways. It is at this point that each of their lives starts veering into unexpected directions. Zoe throws herself into her music therapy and grows close with Vanessa, a guidance counselor at the local high school. Their friendship blossoms into something much more as Vanessa confesses her homosexuality to Zoe, and the two begin exploring an emotional and sexual relationship that gives them the satisfaction they each seek from their lives.
With his life falling into a wave of alcohol abuse and irresponsibility, Max is taken in by his brother, Reid, and Reid's wife, Libby. They are deeply religious people who introduce Max to Pastor Clive of the Eternal Glory Church. Max feels born again and begins taking the steps necessary to keep his life on the path of righteousness.
Jodi Picoult stated in a recent interview that "[t]he purpose of a story is to be a crowbar that slides under your skin and, with luck, cracks your mind wide open." She more than accomplishes this as SING YOU HOME takes a drastic turn that pits the newly created lifestyles of Zoe and Max against each other. Even though the state they live in, Rhode Island, does not recognize same-sex marriage, Zoe and Vanessa take their vows at a local bowling alley and consider themselves to be a married couple. Vanessa pushes Zoe to complete the one thing in her life that will make her whole: becoming a mother. With the recognition that there are still three embryos of Zoe and Max's that have gone unused, Zoe approaches Max with the legal paperwork requesting him to sign off his rights to these embryos and allow Zoe and Vanessa to use them.
Max is taken aback first of all by Zoe's embracing of a lesbian lifestyle and now is thrown even more by the request to sign over the embryos to Zoe and her new partner. Pastor Clive finds out about this and persuades Max to take Zoe and Vanessa to court, where their lifestyle will be put on trial. At this point, SING YOU HOME turns from a deeply personal novel exploring the lives of each of the characters into a suspenseful courtroom drama dealing with ethical and moral issues that are extremely pertinent and controversial.
Picoult is firmly of the belief that gay rights is not about issues but about people. Zoe and Vanessa's attorney attempts to paint this very picture to persuade the judge that her clients are ready and able to provide a loving household for the child who might be conceived from the embryos that are being contested. Max's attorney, a member of the Eternal Glory Church, takes the extreme counterpoint by quoting biblical scripture that damns homosexuals as sinners and thereby implies that they are not entitled to be parents.
What Picoult does best is bring audiences inside the mind, body and soul of each of her characters --- real people with the same hopes and dreams as anyone else. Regardless of where you stand on the issue of same-sex marriage and the ability of these couples to raise children, you cannot help but be compelled by the desires of Zoe, Max and Vanessa. The court case and its outcome is continuously unpredictable and will have readers glued to their chairs right up to the startling conclusion.
Accompanying the novel is a CD that features songs written by Picoult and performed by Ellen Wilber. The 10 tracks correlate to each chapter heading and are specific to a particular chapter. No matter when you decide to listen to the music, you will be satisfied with the soundtrack that accompanies the lives of these terrific characters whom Picoult has brought to life.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on October 4, 2011
Sing You Home