The thought occurs while reading Jodi Picoult's latest novel, "Sing You Home" (Atria Books, 480 pages, $28): Whoa! This one just might shock some of the indefatigable novelist's legion of fans -- or at least make them squirm a bit. Picoult's oeuvre has always encompassed ripped-from-the-headlines topics, but rarely has her subject been as hot-button as this one about gay rights.
The protagonist is music therapist and midlife lesbian Zoe Baxter, whose story opens with a recitation of her many failed attempts to carry a baby to term, followed by the bitter dissolution of her marriage to the unfortunately named Max Baxter. She drifts into a friendship with school counselor Vanessa Shaw, a relationship revealed in a sudden burst of clarity to be more than platonic. A few months later the two are traveling to Massachusetts to be married, and settling into a domestic bliss that Picoult offers up in more detail than some readers might want.
Of course, you knew there would be a court case. The issue of the frozen embryos left over from Zoe and Max's infertility battle soon rears its head. Max, a recovering alcoholic who has joined a fundamentalist Christian church, doesn't want them for himself but for his holy-roller brother and sister-in-law, with whom he is secretly in love. The church bankrolls his lawsuit against Zoe and provides two villainous characters, the righteous Pastor Clive and the unctuous lawyer Wade Preston, who see in Max's case a slam-dunk against the evils of homosexuality.
It's not hard to see where Picoult's sympathies lie, so over-the-top are the cartoonish Clive and Wade, but it's refreshing to see her not shy away from the sensibilities of her Heartland readers. And it must be said that this bit of political zing makes "Sing You Home" more riveting than most of her recent offerings.
She does dig into her old bag of tricks. Besides the aforementioned courtroom drama, Picoult again shows off her famously exhaustive research in eye-glazing passages about the efficacy of music as therapy, and with pages of statistics on gay parentage. And irritatingly, she clings to her alternate-narrator style, a cheap device that sometimes confuses (even with different typefaces).
The story also ends a bit too neatly and abruptly, but would it be a Picoult novel if it didn't? If readers are feeling bereft, they can console themselves with the attached CD, featuring earnest songs by Picoult and singer/composer Ellen Wilber that complement the story. Another gimmick to add to her arsenal.
Cynthia Dickison is a features designer at the Star Tribune.