A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult Review

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In a rush? Scroll to the bottom for my snapshot thoughts!

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The warm fall day starts like any other at the Center—a women’s reproductive health services clinic—its staff offering care to anyone who passes through its doors. Then, in late morning, a desperate and distraught gunman bursts in and opens fire, taking all inside hostage.

After rushing to the scene, Hugh McElroy, a police hostage negotiator, sets up a perimeter and begins making a plan to communicate with the gunman. As his phone vibrates with incoming text messages he glances at it and, to his horror, finds out that his fifteen-year-old daughter, Wren, is inside the clinic.

But Wren is not alone. She will share the next and tensest few hours of her young life with a cast of unforgettable characters: A nurse who calms her own panic in order save the life of a wounded woman. A doctor who does his work not in spite of his faith but because of it, and who will find that faith tested as never before. A pro-life protester disguised as a patient, who now stands in the cross hairs of the same rage she herself has felt. A young woman who has come to terminate her pregnancy. And the disturbed individual himself, vowing to be heard.

Told in a daring and enthralling narrative structure that counts backward through the hours of the standoff, this is a story that traces its way back to what brought each of these very different individuals to the same place on this fateful day.

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Jodi Picoult is an author that I’ve always been familiar with, and really enjoyed her previous book Small Great Things. Picoult’s books always tackle difficult or controversial topics, which is something I really admire about her works. This particular book, A Spark of Light, definitely falls into the category of controversial, as it follows a hostage situation in an abortion clinic.

Even though I’ve enjoyed her books in the past, I was a little nervous going into this book, given the subject matter, as it is so timely and sensitive. I will say that in my personal opinion, this is one of those instances where a ‘perfectly balanced’ argument isn’t what I was looking for as a core theme of the story. I think I would have struggled with the book if that was its purpose and its execution, because I am so firmly pro-choice that a book with a ‘decide for yourself’ sort of message, wouldn’t personally satisfy me as a reader. This is a topic I’m going to do a full discussion on in the future as I’m aware it is a controversial one.

But in applying that to A Spark of Light, I think Picoult did a good job. There were characters who are pro-life protesters, whose heads we are inside of for paragraphs at a time. In these chapters, we get to see their views, and even though they are hard to read and accept at times, I think Picoult does a good job at steering the conversation out of harmful waters. You can tell throughout that she is pro-choice, still giving a voice to pro-life characters, but ultimately circling back to a pro-choice narrative. I know this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but like I said, it worked for me.

As for the characters themselves, I will say that they are a diverse bunch. There are substantial discussions of race and abortion, as the doctor held hostage inside the abortion clinic is black, along with various lawyers and staff. Those conversations are not ones I see very often in regard to abortion discourse, as it always tends to focus solely on the broader gender differences and inequalities, and often ignores the intersections of race and sexuality. The latter of those, I feel was lacking in the book.

I cannot speak for the representation of black characters, but I was let down by the treatment of the only (I think?) queer character in the book. Possible spoiler alert for the end of this paragraph, but the ‘bury your gays’ trope was used fairly early on in the book, which was disheartening to see. I also think if Picoult really wanted to explore more intersections within this topic, the experience of non-cis characters in this environment would have added a lot of compelling and desperately needed discussion. Though, that wouldn’t exactly be her story to tell, so there’s a conflict there. If you know of any non-cis ownvoices books in this vein, please let me know!

The writing itself was great. It’s accessible and easy to read, while also being quietly clever in its ability to raise incredibly weighty and complex questions in a succinct and almost poetic way. I really click with Picoult’s writing style. I did see the twist coming, however.

The structure, I had more trouble with. The book is told backwards, beginning at 6PM at the height of the hostage situation, and moving back through the hours until the morning of the attack. While this worked to build up characters, it did take a lot of the suspense away from the hostage situation itself, and almost took away the stakes, as you know who survived and didn’t from the first chapter. This didn’t affect the discussion in any way that I noticed, but if you’re going into the book for the plot of the hostage situation, I think you’ll be disappointed.

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IF YOU LIKE:

  • Books with heavy topics.
  • Character-driven narratives.
  • Discourse for days.

Then this book is for you!

IF YOU DON’T LIKE:

  • Binary approach to gender.
  • Lack of suspense.
  • A pretty easily guessed twist.
  • Trigger Warnings:
    • Graphic descriptions of abortion.
    • Murder.
    • Hostage situations.
    • Bury your gays.
    • Blood.

Then maybe give it more thought before you pick it up.

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Have you read A Spark of Light or something similar? Let me know and we can chat! And also, if you have any recommendations for ownvoices non-cis books in this vein, hit me up!

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