February 20, 2013

The Storyteller: A Close-Up Review (Adult/New Adult)

"Sage Singer, who befriends an old man who's particularly beloved in her community. Josef Weber is everyone favorite retired teacher and Little League coach and they strike up a friendship at the bakery where Sage works. One day he asks Sage for a favor: to kill him. Shocked, Sage refuses…and then he confesses his darkest secret - he deserves to die, because he was a Nazi SS guard. Complicating the matter? Sage's grandmother is a Holocaust survivor.

What do you do when evil lives next door? Can someone who's committed a truly heinous act ever atone for it with subsequent good behavior? Should you offer forgiveness to someone if you aren't the party who was wronged? And most of all - if Sage even considers his request - is it murder, or justice?
" (from Goodreads) 
The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult


I actually really disliked Sage in the first part of this book. I'm not sure if this is intentional on the author's part, or if we were supposed to find her character sympathetic, but whatever the case, the result was that I just could not make myself like her. She seemed to me to be very self-effacing, in an artificial 'woe is me' kind of way, from how she felt about her scarred face (which she was really hung up on) to the reasons behind her sleeping with a married man. This latter decision of hers probably lost her the most respect with me, because I can forgive a character a fair number of things, but adultery is something I find it very difficult to get on board with. She knew full well that this guy was married, and yet she carried on this affair with him anyway. I'm sorry, but ugh.

To be fair, Sage does improve in the last third of the book, taking some initiative to make changes in her life, gaining more self-confidence, and earning back some of my respect. Her character development is due in part to what she absorbs from the story her grandmother tells her, as it helps Sage put everything into perspective, but also to the fact that she begins a relationship with another (thankfully, unmarried!) guy. This underlying message of 'you can feel good about yourself once you've got a guy's approval' didn't sit that well with me, though.

Also, I would like to note that although Sage is 25, to me her voice sounded too mature for her age — more like someone in her thirties. Technically since she is in her twenties I'm counting this one as qualifying for the "New Adult" challenge, but I don't think it captures the voice of a 25-year-old very realistically.

Minka: Sage's grandmother, on the other hand, is so much easier to like. Her story, told in Part 2, was probably my favourite section of the book (ironically, since it's the part that deals with all of the atrocities of the Holocaust). Minka is a relatable character you have to feel sorry for, and yet she demonstrates her strength and perseverance time and again.

Josef: I can't really discuss him without spoilers. Suffice it to say that the glimpses we're given indicate that he's a very interesting, complex character, and I wish we'd been able to see more of his perspective.


I suspect one of the author's objectives in writing The Storyteller was to cast light on some of the shades of grey involved in the events and people of the Holocaust. Whether she actually succeeds in this, I'm less certain. I wish Picoult had explored the larger system and the elements of social psychology that shaped and exacerbated the behaviour of the Nazis. Instead, she mostly focuses on a few individuals, reducing it to a question of "Can someone be truly good or truly evil, or is everyone just a mix?" Sure, you can have that conversation all day long, but it's still only looking at the topic through one lens. Since I got my degree in psychology, and took a course in applied social psych, I know that social psychology played a critical role in bringing about the atrocities of the Holocaust. I'm sure it was not the only factor, but let's face it: there were a lot of individuals involved in making sure the "Nazi machine" operated smoothly, and they couldn't all have been sadistic psychopaths. I would have appreciated more exploration of the idea — a fundamental tenet of social psychology theory — that rather than behaviour being attributed to "bad apples" (i.e. "evil" individuals) it can be attributed to "bad barrels" (the environment affecting the individuals). (In terms of the Holocaust specifically, personally I'm inclined to think that there were probably a few apples that had already gone bad, but there was definitely something wrong with the barrels, too.)

This is not to say that Picoult paints all the Germans with the same brush. She takes steps to make sure this is not the case, and the German individuals we are presented with fall in a variety of places on the 'moral spectrum', from the lacking-a-conscience Reiner, to the more ambiguous Franz, to the downright helpful Herr Bauer, Herr Fassbinder, and anonymous farmer's wife. Not all of the Jewish characters are "perfect" either, case in point being Sage herself, of course.

I also thought the author brought up an important point about forgiveness — that it helps the person doing the forgiving more than the one who wants/needs it. Nothing I haven't heard before, but it's still a great point to raise in the context of the story. Whether or not forgiveness is possible from someone you did not directly wrong is also introduced as an interesting discussion.

Ania's story, which appears in excerpts throughout, does a great job of highlighting many of the themes that underlie the novel as a whole. Concepts of brotherhood, friendship, duty, honour, compassion, helplessness, guilt, and shame are presented in a folktale fashion.


I found Part 1 to be rather boring, and you already know how I felt about Sage, so initially The Storyteller and I were off to a pretty slow start. I was a little worried I was going to DNF it, frankly, but then I got to Part 2. I didn't realize The Storyteller was going to go into that much detail about a survivor's Holocaust experience, but Minka's story is one of the most compelling aspects of the book — gripping, intense, horrifying, and engrossing. When Part 3 returned to the modern-day characters and plot, I was initially not that thrilled about it, but I was feeling more invested in the story by this point — and then I guessed the twist and had to keep reading to see if I was right. (I so was.)

If you're finding Part 1 to be slow-going and you're fed up with Sage, I definitely recommend you stick it out until Part 2. I'd also suggest taking breaks with this book. It's hardly a surprise, seeing as this book deals with the Holocaust, but Part 2 in particular is bleak, depressing, and densely packed with information. It's certainly not a quick, easy read. I would like to note, though, that Picoult does an excellent job of integrating all of the information into Minka's personal story. While I think Jodi Picoult did her research about the conditions of the concentration camps, what she presents us with is more than just a set of facts. We come to care about Minka as a person.

Partway through Part 3 I started to suspect what the twist was, but I was kept guessing, never totally sure until the revelation actually occurred. I'm glad what I suspected turned out to be the case, because it nicely ties in the story of the two brothers, Reiner and Franz, as well as the tale involving Ania that is interspersed throughout. It also makes this one of those books where a second read-through might be a different kind of experience, now that you know the twist.

I kind of wish there had been more closure with Josef and Minka, but closure is not always possible in real life. I wasn't really sure how to feel about Sage's ultimate decision (spoiler, highlight to read: to help Josef die, but not to forgive him), but it's certainly an interesting choice. The ending seemed a little abrupt to me; I thought more could have been wrapped up, as we don't really know what's going to happen to Sage. Still, it ends a bit unsettlingly (spoiler: on yet another lie!), leaving the reader with some food for thought.

Final verdict: 4 shooting stars. 

Disclaimer: I received an ARC for review from the publisher.

Note: this is an adult book and there is a lot of mature content.

This book counts towards my goal for the "New Adult" challenge.

1 comment:

  1. I've been thinking of adding this to my Goodreads reading list, sounds like it's worth it. I've always found Jodi Picoult's either a hit or a miss for me. Great review, Danya.


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