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xJodi Picoult,( Songs of the Humpback Whale, Harvesting the Heart, Picture Perfect, Mercy, The Pact, Keeping Faith, Plain Truth)like fellow American Theodore Sturgeon, writes about forms of love. Unlike Sturgeon, who was a master in the science fiction and fantasy field, Picoult ties her tales to mystery and suspense and very successfully indeed does she do this. This novel is a modern re-telling of the old Salem witch hunts.
Allen & Unwin include a brief biography of Jodi Picoult on the cover of her latest book, Salem Falls, but, alas, do not tell readers that there is an interview done by them available on the Internet. I count myself fortunate to have discovered it since it gives the reader an insight into the mind of this accomplished wordsmith. Picoult, whose first job was as a page at a public library, always knew she wanted to be a writer and her books amply demonstrate her success.
The themes of Salem Falls
Jack St. Bride, scion of a wealthy family, and successful athlete and instructor, has spent eight months in gaol after being accused of sleeping with one of his students, Catherine Marsh. Jack was innocent of the charge but had agreed to plea bargain in order to spend a certain eight months in prison rather than contemplate the possibility of a far longer sentence were he to be found guilty. On his release he hitch hikes aimlessly until he is picked up by a taxi driver who sets him down in Salem Falls.
St. Bride, an addict of the TV quiz show Jeopardy!, takes a job as dishwasher at a diner owned by Addie Peabody and begins to think that he could make a life in the town. Unfortunately, part of the condition of his release is that he report in to the local police station to declare his status... and that status becomes public knowledge.
Addie, who truncated a promising career to care for both her father and his diner, after the death of her mother, is the victim of two dreadful experiences in her past life. She was raped by three boys of the town and fell pregnant as a result of the rape. The one good outcome of the horror was the birth of her daughter Chloe, but Chloe died before she could even reach adolescence. Devastated, but unwilling to give up all vestiges of her daughter, Addie maintains the pretence that her daughter stays with her during the day at the diner. She even lays out a plate of food for the dead girl. Jack, on discovering this eccentricity, goes along with it and soon wins Addie's heart.
Four teenagers, a little younger than Chloe would have been, have decided to become witches. They are daughters of various notables amongst the town's citizens and their leader , Gillian Duncan, is the daughter of the millionaire proprietor of a pharmaceutical company. She falls in love with St. Bride who evinces no interest in her other than a resentment that she should approach him.
Jack has reluctantly established a relationship with Addie. His initial reaction, caused by the horror of the previous accusation and his imprisonment, is to eschew physical contact with anyone. Gillian's approaches make him profoundly uneasy.
Gillian leads her coven in Beltane revelry. Unbeknownst to the other girls, she has purloined some atropine from her father's company and has drugged a thermos of iced tea. She casts a spell intended to draw St. Bride to the place where they are dancing, Gillian naked and two of the others only partly clad, and, serendipitously, Jack goes there. He has drunk too much as a result of Addie's apparent doubt of him and is unable to remember the details of what happens in the clearing that night, save that he is innocent of the charge of the rape of Gillian which results.
Picoult has done excellent research in the preparation of this book. Apart from the legal research, she has delved into pharmacology (with a passing nod to pharmacognosy) together with the history and practice of witchcraft. She displays a profound understanding of human emotions and reactions and has produced an extremely gripping and involving narrative.I hope the disclosure on the final page was not intended to come as a shock since it was wildly telegraphed from early in the novel. Were shock intended, perhaps more subtle clues should have been employed.
All this having been said, Salem Falls is one of the best books I have read this year.
Editor's note: This is a review of the Australian hardcover which was published in May 2001.
Reviewed by Denise Wels, May 2001
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