Jodi Picoult is the author of 26 widely successful novels. She aims to dissect ethical dilemmas, touching on a wide variety of subjects, including but not limited to school shootings, suicide, bullying, emancipation, racism, and abortion. Her novels are written from multiple perspectives, making numerous characters in her stories protagonists. Picoult often writes about taboo topics, which leaves her opinions open to criticism, and though she doesn’t always get it right, she does her best to give voices to those who might otherwise not be heard. Picoult’s novels are made for book clubs—through each novel it is as though she is asking, “What would you do?” Below is a list of her 11 best books.
Coming in at number one is Nineteen Minutes, published in 2007. After a school shooting devastates the town of Sterling, the residents are forced to come to terms with not only the loss of their children and faculty, but the reasons why such a desperate act of revenge took place, and their part in it. In 19 minutes, a spree of violence turns their lives upside down, and there can be no closure until they can understand why it happened. Josie, the only eye witness, cannot remember what happened, and is also the daughter of the judge. This novel dissects not only the tragedy of a school shooting, but the steps that could have been taken to avoid its occurrence.
Sage hides away because of the scar across her face that reminds her of the day her mother died. She feels terrible guilt and attends a grief support group in an effort to heal. One of the attendees, an old man named Josef, begins visiting Sage’s bakery and the pair become friends, acutely aware of the struggles they both face. But Josef uses this connection to confess a long-kept secret and asks for Sage’s help, which she’s not sure she can give. But can she live with knowing such an evil secret? The Storyteller is layered, compelling, but doesn’t fall into the trap of being overly contrived, like some of Picoult’s novels do.
3. The Pact
The Hartes and the Golds have lived next-door to each other for years and welcome the closeness of their children, Chris and Emily, as their childhood friendship blossoms into an adolescent romance. The future seems set in stone, that they will one day marry and unite the families with children of their own. Until one morning Emily is found dead with a bullet in her head and Chris’ fingerprints on the gun. The two families are fractured in their despair and search for the truth, unable to grasp that Chris could do such a thing, but equally dumbfounded by the evidence. Chris insists it was a suicide pact that went wrong, but with him left standing and Emily dead, his only alibi is unable to attest. The Pact addresses teenage pressures and how they can manifest into something dangerous. It’s honest and dark and pulls back the curtain on issues such as self harm, something many novels shy away from, which is why it places so high on this list.
Kate Fitzgerald is dying. Her sister Anna was born to save her life, acting as a donor, and while the donations begin small, they gradually become more serious and dangerous, leaving Anna with potential side effects for the rest of her life. When Kate needs a kidney transplant, 13-year-old Anna hires a lawyer to sue her parents for the rights to her own body, tired of never having a say in the part she plays in keeping Kate alive. Kate will die without the transplant, but no doctor will perform this operation from an unwilling donor, leaving the Fitzgerald family in crisis and with the unanswerable question of whose life is more important? My Sister’s Keeper gets to the bone of family dynamics and the ethics behind children like Anna. Every side of the family gets a say in chapters dedicated to their point of view, and the reader has a difficult time ascertaining what is right or fair.
5. House Rules
Jacob Hunt has Asperger’s syndrome. His parents have worked tirelessly to adapt to his condition, even at the expense of Jacob’s brother Theo who resents him for what he perceives an abnormal life. Jacob fixates on crime, appearing at crime scenes much to the police’s dismay, and often providing insightful ideas about their cases. Unfortunately when there’s a murder in town, Jacob is the main suspect—who better knows how to cover up the crime? What ensues is a court case that leaves the family broken, with Jacob’s parents unable to definitively say that their son is innocent. This is the kind of novel that demands to be read, and it was one of the first that drew me to Picoult as an author. House Rules is an example of how she refuses to shy away from uncomfortable topics.
Handle with Care is one of Picoult’s most morally ambiguous novels. Willow was born with severe osteogenesis imperfecta, a disease that means as she grows, her bones continuously shatter and break, setting her up for a lifetime of unavoidable pain. The care Willow needs is expensive, and her parents suffer financially as a result. The pair live a difficult life, and though they love their daughter, they need to find a solution to their debts. Charlotte believes she finds the answer when she decides to file a wrongful birth suit against her OB/GYN for not warning them that their child was going to be disabled, hoping to use the money to continue caring for Willow. But Charlotte will have to say she would have aborted her pregnancy if she’d been told, and the doctor she’s suing is her best friend. This book treads a fine line while portraying this scenario, using the characters to depict all the different points of view on the topic of abortion in the case of a disabled child.
Nina Frost is an assistant district attorney, specialising in prosecuting sexual offenders. She’s passionate about her work and determined to work towards a better justice system after finding one too many loopholes. She is soon devastated to learn that her 5-year-old son Nathaniel is the victim of molestation, and as someone who is used to fighting for justice, she feels completely helpless in light of this atrocity. Nina faces criminals going free every day, but she cannot allow her son’s molester to do the same. Like many of the novels on this list, this one is uncomfortable to read. It deals with serious and potentially triggering issues. While the story is an original one, parts of the plot are implausible, making The Perfect Match not one of Picoult’s best works, but certainly worth a read if you enjoy her prose.
Mariah is recently divorced and has full custody of her child Faith. In the midst of her heart ache, she falls into a depression, only brought out of it by Faith’s strange behaviour. Initially Faith develops an imaginary friend called Guard, but then she begins to recite bible passages she shouldn’t be capable of reading. After seeing a therapist, it’s established that Faith’s imaginary friend is actually what she perceives to be God. News spreads of her “visions” and soon the media is alive with the story, pestering Mariah and her daughter even as she tries to get to the bottom of what Faith is seeing. This novel was quite different for Picoult—it doesn’t involve a court case, but it does deal with family ethics in exceptional circumstances. Although I was adamant about finding out what was behind Faith’s abilities, it didn’t have the same page-turner quality of Picoult’s other novels, and developed at a much slower pace.
Police officer Cameron McDonald is put in a terrible position when his cousin Jamie confesses that he killed his wife, who was terminally ill with cancer. That this was a “mercy” killing makes no difference; euthanasia is illegal, and Cameron has no choice but to arrest Jamie for what he did. Due to the moral grayness of the crime, Cameron is soon at odds with his wife Allie about the arrest, as everyone has an opinion about what Jamie did and whether it was truly a crime. The plot mostly focuses on the dynamic between Cameron and Allie, and to be frank, they are downright unlikable at times. Mercy is moving and thought-provoking, but it does have some serious faults.
10. Change of Heart
June’s happy life is turned on its head when her husband and eldest daughter are murdered. To add to her grief, her daughter Claire is in desperate need of a heart transplant, and as the only family June has left, she has to find a way to save her daughter. This novel’s main fault is that it attempts to cover too many issues at once. Picoult’s strongest work is when she takes one social or political issue and dissects it through the course of a novel, but here she tries to tackle religion, the death penalty, and child abuse. While the concept is ambitious, and largely why this novel still appears on this list, the execution is lacking.
11. Plain Truth
An infant is found dead on an Amish farm shortly after birth. Evidence points to murder, and 18-year-old Katie Fisher is arrested for the crime, despite claiming she is not the child’s mother and had nothing to do with its death. By chance she comes across lawyer Ellie Hathaway, who takes her case pro bono, but the culture difference between the two creates issues Ellie couldn’t have foreseen. Plain Truth is intriguing, but it is last on this list for being implausible. That Ellie goes to live with Katie simply isn’t normal legal practice, nor would it ever happen in the real world. The book will grip you, but not always for the right reasons, and in a way that will leave you feeling frustrated for the time you invested.