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.
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.
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.
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