3/21/2013 - Let Maine have its Steven King; Vermont, its Chris Bohjalian. New Hampshire has Jodi Picoult, who is fast eclipsing Dan Brown, the woman who wrote “Mary had a Little Lamb” and the late recluse out in Cornish as the Granite State’s most famous writer.
As a novelist, the 46-year-old Picoult has achieved status enjoyed only by the top tier of authors: the privilege of having one’s name more prominent than the book’s title on the cover. The title — the whole book, for that matter — becomes only mildly important when you have 14 million books in print. Fans will buy even as deft editing declines in inverse proportion to an author’s fame. In a dispute over commas and cuts between a household name and a copy editor, the household name will win or take her brand elsewhere. Witness the evolution of the Twilight saga: Book 1, 498 pages; Book 2, 563; Book 3, 628; Book 4, 768. There’s a similar evolution in Harry Potter, which began at 309 and ended at 759 pages. No lesser being dare tell a lion he’s roaring too loudly, or too long.
It’s a relief, then, that though Picoult’s latest checks in at 460 pages, The Storyteller is not bloated with writerly ego, but rather, thickened with plot. It’s a complicated tale that takes some time to unfold, and even as the hours tick by, relationships grow, not resentment.
Sage Singer is our hero — or perhaps antihero, depending on how things turn out. Badly scarred by a mysterious accident that somehow involved her mother, at 25, Sage lives an intentionally cloistered life, working the night shift as a baker at a coffee shop/bakery (named Our Daily Bread) at a religious shrine in Westerbrook, N.H. There, she works with a former nun who walked out of church on Easter, dyed her hair pink and then hiked the Appalachian Trail, where she finally found God; and a barista who makes “foam art” and speaks only in haiku. (“Ran out of baguettes/Gave angry folks free coffee/Tonight make extra.”)
Picoult could have stopped introducing characters right there, and built the entire book around those three, and no one would have felt cheated out of $28.99. But there’s more: Adam, the married funeral director who is Sage’s lust interest; her grandmother, Minka, a concentration-camp survivor who tells her young granddaughter that it’s her telephone number tattooed on her forearm; and Leo, the Nazi hunter who spends his days talking to marginally functioning women who think Josef Mengele has been reincarnated and come back as a cat. (Scratch marks in the shape of swastikas!)
But the main story here is the relationship between Sage and 95-year-old Josef Webber, a widower she meets at a grief support group. “Maybe loneliness is a mirror, and recognizes itself,” Sage muses.
Alone but for a dachshund named Eva, Webber is “everyone’s adoptive, cuddly grandfather,” a man who taught German at the high school, coached baseball and organized cleanups at a local park.
He’s also a Nazi, or at least that’s what he tells Sage. And, because she’s Jewish, he asks her to forgive him, then kill him, in what she supposes is a bizarre act of karmic judgment. Sage was raised by parents whose observation was casual, and the Holocaust was only a distant horror to her, despite her grandmother’s horrific arm brand. But as she flicks through haunting images on the Internet, a dormant anger kindles in her. Thrust into history unwillingly, she embarks on a quest to see justice done, despite her doubts about Webber’s story and motivation.
While Sage is the primary storyteller, her point of view is interspersed with first-person narratives from others: her grandmother, the federal prosecutor, and Josef himself. A romance that buds between Sage and Leo is a given from the moment we learn he’s single, but apart from that bit of predictability, the story does not disappoint.
What happens to Josef, and who is really is, is a mystery until the final pages of the book. No such obfuscation for Sage: A major motion picture is clearly her ultimate destiny. The Storyteller is of variegated crumb, like Sage’s artisanal bread: dense and airy, comic and brooding, blasphemous and pious. A