Storyteller (Picoult)

The Storyteller
Jodi Picoult, 2013
Simon & Schuster
480 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781439102763



Summary
Some stories live forever . . .

Sage Singer is a baker. She works through the night, preparing the day’s breads and pastries, trying to escape a reality of loneliness, bad memories, and the shadow of her mother’s death. When Josef Weber, an elderly man in Sage’s grief support group, begins stopping by the bakery, they strike up an unlikely friendship. Despite their differences, they see in each other the hidden scars that others can’t, and they become companions.

Everything changes on the day that Josef confesses a long-buried and shameful secret—one that nobody else in town would ever suspect—and asks Sage for an extraordinary favor. If she says yes, she faces not only moral repercussions, but potentially legal ones as well. With her own identity suddenly challenged, and the integrity of the closest friend she’s ever had clouded, Sage begins to question the assumptions and expectations she’s made about her life and her family. When does a moral choice become a moral imperative? And where does one draw the line between punishment and justice, forgiveness and mercy?

In this searingly honest novel, Jodi Picoult gracefully explores the lengths we will go in order to protect our families and to keep the past from dictating the future. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio

Birth—May 19, 1966
Where—Long Island, New York, USA
Education—B.A., Princeton University; M.A., Harvard University
Currently—lives in Hanover, New Hampshire


Jodi Picoult received an A.B. in creative writing from Princeton and a master's degree in education from Harvard. The recipient of the 2003 New England Book Award for her entire body of work, she is the author of fourteen novels, including The Tenth Circle, Vanishing Acts, and My Sister's Keeper, for which she received the American Library Association's Margaret Alexander Edwards Award. Recently, she penned several issues of Wonder Woman for DC Comics. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and three children. (From the publisher.)

More
Born on Long Island, New York, Jodi Picoult was convinced that the tranquil, suburban setting offered no real inspiration to her for being a writer. There was no drama; just the daily grind of families living their lives. Eventually, though, the story of this challenge became the core of Picoult's bestselling novels.

Picoult studied creative writing at Princeton, and before she graduated, she had two short stories published in Seventeen magazine. This early success inspired Picoult to devote her life to writing. After college, she paid the bills with a series of copywriting and editing jobs, and she even taught eighth grade English. Marriage and children soon followed, and while she was pregnant with her first child, she wrote her first novel, Songs of the Humpback Whale, a remarkable tale told from five different points of view that heralded a bold new voice in fiction.

In subsequent novels, Picoult has mined the complex mysteries of everyday life: love, marriage, career, family. Faced with difficult, often painful moral choices, her characters struggle to find balance in an off-kilter world fraught with danger and shattered by terrible sociological ills like domestic violence, sexual abuse, and teen suicide. Though page-turners of the highest order, Picoult's stories avoid easy solutions and provoke thoughtful reading and animated discussion. Unsurprisingly, they are a favorite choice for book clubs.

From her web site, Picoult talks about the relationship between her family and her writing. "It took me a while to find the balance," Picoult says, "but I'm a better mother because I have my writing ... and I'm a better writer because of the experiences I've had as a parent that continually remind me how far we are willing to go for the people we love the most."

Extras
From a 2004 Barnes & Noble interview and the author's website:

• She has gone skydiving and says, and says "I'd do it again—if I didn't have kids."

• Picoult and her family own two Jersey calves, named Decalf and Coffee.

• Before becoming a novelist, Picoult worked at a two-person ad agency, where her main responsibility was "to keep the owner's wife from finding out he was sleeping with the freelance art director."

• If she could invite anyone, living or dead, to a dinner party, Picoult's guest list would include Ernest Hemingway, Alice Hoffman, William Shakespeare, Mel Gibson, and Emeril Lagasse.

• Other than writing, other talents of Picoult's include making Linzer tortes and broccoli soup, and childbirth. "I'm awfully good at giving birth—quickly, no drugs, etc.—though that definitely has a limited appeal," she quips.

When asked what book influenced her most, this is what she said:

Gone With The Wind. I read it when I was twelve —I was a total dork, and memorized huge sweeping dialogues I could act out as both Scarlett and Rhett. But what stuck with me was the way Margaret Mitchell managed to create an entire world out of words. I thought, "I want to do that." (Author bio and interview from Barnes & Noble.)

Novels
Songs of the Humpback Whale (1992)
Harvesting the Heart (1993)
Picture Perfect (1995)
The Pact (1998)
Keeping Faith (1999)
Plain Truth (2000)
Salem Falls (2001)
Perfect Match (2002)
Second Glance (2003)
My Sister's Keeper (2004)
Vanishing Acts (2005)
The Tenth Circle (2006)
Nineteen Minutes (2007)
Change of Heart (2008)
Handle With Care (2009)
House Rules (2010)
Sing You Home (2011)
Lone Wolf (2012)
The Storyteller (2013)
Leaving Time (2014) (Bibliograhphy from Wikipedia.)


Book Reviews
Picoult reconfigures themes from her other bestsellers for her uneven new morality tale. Twenty-five-year-old reclusive baker Sage Singer befriends the elderly Josef Weber, who shares something shocking from his past and asks her to help him die, a request that pins Sage between morality and retribution. Sage, a Jew who now considers herself an atheist, begins to think more deeply about faith. Picoult examines the links between family identity, religion, humanity, and how it all figures in difficult decisions. The three-parter is narrated by several characters, including Sage’s grandmother Minka, who survived the Holocaust. Snippets of a novel Minka wrote focus on a bloodthirsty beast, a metaphor for life in a death camp. Picoult’s formulaic approach to Minka’s accounts of the Holocaust is a cheap shot, but the author appreciates Sage’s moral bind. Nearly half of the book is devoted to a verbose, sad recounting of Minka’s time during the war, but the real conflict lies within Sage. That conflict, and the complexity of a character who discovers herself through the trials of Josef and Minka, is the book’s saving grace.
Publishers Weekly


Everyone loves retired teacher and Little League coach Josef Weber, including Sage Singer, who befriends him after they start talking at the bakery where she works. So obviously she's horrified when he asks her to kill him. Then he tells her why he deserves to die, and she's inclined to agree.
Library Journal


Sage, who works in a bakery.... Josef, a much respected 95-year-old retired German teacher, confesses to Sage that he is a former SS officer.... Sage calls in Leo, a Washington, D.C.–based FBI agent who specializes in tracking down Nazi fugitives. Leo asks her to elicit Minka's story, never before told.... Minka's story [moves from] the misery of the Polish ghetto and imprisonment in Auschwitz. Readers will see the final twist coming far in advance due to unwieldy plot contrivances which only serve to emphasize what they are intended to conceal. Still, a fictional testament as horrifying as it is suspenseful.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. The Storyteller opens with a story within a story: the gripping narrative that Minka Singer composes: first as a young student in Lodz, then from the ghetto where her family finds itself exiled, and finally, during her imprisonment at Auschwitz. How does the tale of Ania and Aleksander and Casmir Lubov intersect with the plot of the larger novel? In what ways does this fantastical tale of two brothers and the myth of the upior connect with the brutality of the Holocaust and the ongoing hunt for Nazi war criminals?

2. “Josef Weber is as close as you can get to being canonized while you’re still alive. Everyone in Westerbrook knows him…[h]e’s everyone’s adoptive cuddly grandfather.” (p. 22) How does Mary’s estimation of Josef Weber square with what Sage learns of him? How is Josef Weber’s public persona incompatible with the truths that he reveals to Sage? To what extent is it possible for someone who hides a terrible secret to be so seemingly good?

3. By way of explaining her self-imposed solitude, Sage reveals her dramatic facial scar to Josef Weber, in spite of her general embarrassment about her disfigurement. What is it about Josef Weber that Sage finds herself drawn to? To what extent does the genesis of their friendship seem entirely coincidental? At what point in the novel does Sage start being his friend and at what point does she stop?

4. “One of the first things Adam told me was that I was pretty, which should have been my first clue that he was a liar.” (p. 25) Is Sage’s extramarital relationship with Adam consistent with her character’s values? What does their affair offer her? To what extent does Adam’s love for Sage seem genuine? How does he seem to embody the qualities of the “liar” that Sage calls him?

5. “The reason that we go to meet the people who bring us tips about potential Nazis is so that we can make sure they aren’t nuts.” (p. 213) How does Leo Stein’s personality come across in the chapters in the book that he narrates? Why does Leo Stein find Sage Singer irresistible when he first meets her? How does Sage’s on again/off again relationship with Adam complicate her feelings for Leo?

6. “And why does it make me sick to hear him label me; to think that, after all this time, Josef would still feel that one Jew is interchangeable for another?” (p. 61) How do you interpret Josef’s interest in Sage’s Jewish heritage? Given that Sage does not self-identify as a Jew, and does not even believe in God, is she any less qualified to help Josef carry out his death? To what degree does the logic of Josef’s plan hinge on Sage’s being a Jew?

7. “I knew that what the Hauptscharführer saw in my book was…an allegory, a way to understand the complicated relationship between himself and his brother…[i]f one brother was a monster, did it follow that the other had to be one too?” (p. 382) What do Franz and Reiner Hartmann’s gestures toward Minka reveal about their true characters as individuals? Why does Josef Weber choose to lie about his identity (twice) to Sage? To what extent does Josef’s decision mirror that of Aleks Lubov, who chooses to protect the identity of his brother, Casmir, as the monster who terrorizes the village in Minka’s upior story?

8. How do Josef Weber’s recollections of life during the war compare to the memories of Sage’s grandmother, Minka? How did their witnessing so much death up close impact them, respectively, as perpetrator and survivor of the Holocaust? Why did both of them choose to keep details of this period of their life a secret from those closest to them for so long? How did their stories impact you as a reader?

9. “I started to pull the hem of the sweater, so that the weave unraveled. I rolled the yarn up around my arm like a bandage, a tourniquet for a soul that was bleeding out.” (p. 339) How does Minka react when she discovers her father’s bag among the cast-off belongings of Jews condemned to the gas chambers? What does this moment mark in her young life? How does her knowledge of German save her from a worse punishment for wanton destruction of property?

10. As she sorts and separates the belongings of the murdered victims of Auschwitz, Minka secretly collects the cast-off photographs of people who have been condemned to die. What does her risking severe punishment and the possibility of death in order to keep other people’s memories intact, reveal about her need to salvage and preserve something from destruction? Were you surprised when these photographs reappeared in the novel at the book’s conclusion?

11. Why does Sage decide to take justice into her own hands and grant Josef Weber his dying wish? How did you feel upon discovering that Sage was misled by Weber about his true identity? To what extent does Sage seem to forgive Weber for his actions? Why does Sage conceal her behavior from Leo Stein, and to what extent does her behavior seem rational and understandable, given all that she has endured—and lost—herself?

12. There are many storytellers complicit in the creation of this novel—the author, Jodi Picoult; Sage’s grandmother, Minka; Josef Weber, a.k.a. Franz Hartmann; Sage Singer, the protagonist who shapes the narrative through her actions; the many nameless victims of the Holocaust; even the reader, who constructs his or her own interpretation of these multiple narratives. Why do you think Jodi Picoult chose this title for her novel? How does the novel’s conclusion allow the reader to participate actively in the process of storytelling?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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