"Plain Truth" - This story centers on the mystery surrounding the death of a newborn baby found in an Amish barn in Pennsylvania. My favorite thing about this book was the description of the Amish community, and the way Picoult portrayed the culture "clash" between the Amish and the "Englishers" (everyone else) when Katie, the young, unwed woman accused of giving birth and then killing the baby, is made to stand trial in a Pennsylvania courtroom.
Several years ago, I lived in a part of Indiana which has a large Amish population, so it was not uncommon for me to see horse-drawn buggies on the roads, or to see Amish folk out shopping at the big market in Shipshewana (and sometimes even in the mall - usually late teenaged girls, ones whom I'm assuming were in between the age when they were being schooled, and the time when they had to decide whether or not to be baptized). Once, I was even a guest for dinner in the home of an Amish family. From the experience I had with this community, Picoult's characterizations seemed spot on. I loved the way she showed us the Amish way of life: Katie's attorney, Ellie, finds herself forced to live in Katie's household before and during the trial, so we get to see the family and community life through the eyes of an outsider. It was interesting to see how Ellie's relationships with the family developed, and what things she found challenging - as well as those things which she found comforting.
In particular, I thought Picoult did a wonderful job of highlighting one of the main differences between Amish and "English" philosophy - that in the "outside" world, it is acceptable - even encouraged - to stick out from others, to be different, to be unique; while for the Amish, blending in with the community is the most important thing. I was touched by the way Katie (the young, unwed mother of the child) was unable to fathom how the U.S. legal system worked - how is it possible that NOT telling the truth could be the best way to "win?" For Ellie, winning meant Katie being acquitted no matter what (at least that's how she felt when she took the case); but for Katie, telling the truth and being forgiven was the most important thing.
The "mystery" itself (who killed the baby, if it was indeed a murder and not a death from natural causes) was interesting, and the characters were well drawn. There were also interesting parallels in the lives of the various characters which help to bring the book's issues into clearer focus - in this case, issues of motherhood, and fitting into ones family and community. All around, this was an excellent book, with a satisfying ending; a courtroom drama, but also so much more.
"Vanishing Acts" - This is a great book - an interesting, page-turning read with a satisfying ending. Delia is a search-and-rescue worker who discovers that she, herself, was abducted as a child by her beloved father. The story she'd believed for the past 28 years - that her mother had died in a car crash - was not true. And now her father will have to stand trial for the kidnapping. But was what he did really a crime? Or did he do the only thing he knew to do to ensure the safety and happiness of his young daughter?
As usual, Picoult highlights the issues she tackles in this book by weaving some common threads throughout the lives of several characters - parental love, life with an alcoholic parent, and the sometimes fine line between right and wrong. A few things in the story hit fairly close to home for me (I have an alcoholic parent). One of the most touching moments is near the end, when Delia speaks to her mother: "I wish I could tell you that I know you did the best you could . . . but I can't." Heartbreaking, but, like Delia, I find it hard to understand being a parent and not doing everything possible to ensure the safety of your child (including listening when your child says someone has harmed him/her).
I loved Delia's character - she so obviously feels lost throughout much of the book, but still finds the strength to do what needs to be done. I also enjoyed Andrew, Delia's father. He's an amazing character - the man who "kidnapped" his young daughter and then proceeded to be not only a wonderful single father, but also a pillar of his community. Then, when he finds himself in jail awaiting trial, we see another side of him - the ability to ruthlessly do whatever it takes to survive. Maybe it's not really "another" side of him; perhaps that's what he's always done, but he was fortunate enough to have 28 years when this level of ruthlessness wasn't required of him.
I had sniffed out the "smoking gun" way before it came out in the courtroom; when Eric found the medical report that mentioned Beth not wanting to remove her clothes, coupled with a UTI, I knew instantly what was being done to her, and I could easily guess by whom (it was clear "grillo" was not her father's nickname for her). So, I wasn't surprised at all when it came out, but I did find it interesting that what was to me the most crucial piece of the puzzle was only marginally part of the court case itself. (Although perhaps just the mere mention of it was enough to sway the jury).
There were a few things in the book which didn't really add to the plot, IMO - namely Ruthann, the Hopi woman who befriends Delia and her daughter when they arrive in Arizona. However, I enjoyed this subplot, and so, while it didn't add much, I didn't think it took away from the story, either. In a way, I also feel like this about Fitz. On the surface, he was important to the story, but really, I'm not sure it wouldn't have been better without him. Then again, it was good the way it was, so again, I'm not complaining. I just had a feeling that Picoult came close to spreading herself too thin with this book - a few too many threads to follow, but by the end, it did all work out fine.
This is an excellent book, and I'm looking forward to reading more by this author. I'm also feeling a bit less afraid to approach her books. After the utterly gut-wrenching climax of "My Sister's Keeper," I was worried that all Picoult's books would be similar, but they're not. Yes, she tackles sensitive issues, but she also has the ability to write happy endings.