The BookBrowse Review

Published January 22, 2020

ISSN: 1930-0018

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A Spark of Light
A Spark of Light
by Jodi Picoult

Paperback (24 Sep 2019), 400 pages.
Publisher: Ballantine Books
ISBN-13: 9780345545008

A powerful and provocative new novel about ordinary lives that intersect during a heart-stopping crisis.

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 to 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.

Jodi Picoult—one of the most fearless writers of our time—tackles a complicated issue in this gripping and nuanced novel. How do we balance the rights of pregnant women with the rights of the unborn they carry? What does it mean to be a good parent? A Spark of Light will inspire debate, conversation ... and, hopefully, understanding.


The Center squatted on the corner of Juniper and Montfort behind a wrought-iron gate, like an old bulldog used to guarding its territory. At one point, there had been many like it in Mississippi – nondescript, unassuming buildings where services were provided and needs were met. Then came the restrictions that were designed to make these places go away: the halls had to be wide enough to accommodate two passing gurneys; any clinic where that wasn't the case had to shut down or spend thousands on reconstruction. The doctors had to have admitting privileges at local hospitals -- even though most were from out of state and couldn't secure them – or those clinics risked closing, too. One by one they shuttered their windows and boarded up their doors. Now, the Center was a unicorn – a small rectangle of a structure painted a fluorescent flagrant orange, like a flag to those who had traveled hundreds of miles to find it. It was the color of safety; the color of warning. It said: I'm here if you need me. It said, Do what you want to me; I'm not going.

The Center had suffered scars from the cuts of politicians and the barbs of protesters. It had licked it wounds and healed. At one point it had been called the Center for Women and Reproductive Health. But there were those who believed if you do not name a thing, it ceases to exist, and so its title was amputated, like a war injury. But still, it survived. First it became the Center for Women. And then, just: the Center.

The label fit. The Center was the calm in the middle of a storm of ideology. It was the sun of a universe of women who had run out of time and had run out of choices, who needed a beacon to look up to.

And like other things that shine so hot, it had a magnetic pull. Those in need found it the lodestone for their navigation. Those who despised it could not look away.


Today, Wren McElroy thought, was not a good day to die. She knew that other fifteen-year-old girls romanticized the idea of dying for love, but Wren had read Romeo and Juliet last year in eighth grade English and didn't see the magic in waking up in a crypt beside your boyfriend, and then plunging his dagger into your own ribs. And Twilight – forget it. She had listened to teachers paint the stories of heroes whose tragic deaths somehow enlarged their lives rather than shrinking them. When Wren was six, her grandmother had died in her sleep. Strangers had said over and over that dying in your sleep was a blessing, but as she'd stared at her Nana, waxen white in the open coffin, she didn't understand why it was a gift. What if her grandmother had gone to bed the night before thinking, In the morning, I'll water that orchid. In the morning, I'll read the rest of that novel. I'll call my son. So much left unfinished. No, there was just no way dying could be spun into a good thing.

Her grandmother was the only dead person Wren had ever seen, until an hour ago. Now, she could tell you what dying liked like, as opposed to just dead. One minute, Olive had been there, staring so fierce at Wren -- as if she could hold onto the world if her eyes stayed open – and then, in a beat, those eyes stopped being windows and became mirrors, and Wren saw only a reflection of her own panic.

She didn't want to look at Olive anymore, but she did. The dead woman was lying down like she was taking a nap, a couch cushion under her head. Olive's shirt was soaked with blood, but had ridden up on the side, revealing her ribs and waist. Her skin was pale on top and then lavender, with a thin line of deep violet where her back met the floor. Wren realized that was because Olive's blood was settling inside, just two hours after she'd passed. For a second, Wren thought she was going to throw up.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult. Copyright © 2018 by Jodi Picoult. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. The story is narrated from the points of view of ten different characters. Why do you think the author chose to include so many different perspectives? Was there a voice that you connected to most strongly? Did you have difficulty connecting with any characters?
  2. Regardless of their feelings on the issue of abortion, many characters are preoccupied with being a good parent. Why do you think it means to be a good parent?
  3. Initially, Joy and Janine seem to stand on opposite sides of the pro-life/pro-choice debate. By the end, do you think they have found common ground? Do you understand where each one is coming from? Is it possible to form a connection with someone with opposing viewpoints and still maintain a commitment to one's own beliefs?
  4. At one point, Rachel, the employee who escaped from the Center, accuses Allen and his fellow protestors of being responsible for the hostage crisis situation: "If people like you didn't spout the bullshit you do, people like him wouldn't exist." Is this a fair accusation? Is there a point at which one does not have the right to voice one's beliefs? If so, where should that line be drawn?
  5. Did your feelings about the issue of abortion evolve during the reading of this novel, and, if so, how?
  6. By the end of the book, we discover that these characters' lives are interwoven in more ways than one and that each individual has a deeper story than we expected. Were you surprised by any of the interconnections? Which twist struck you the most strongly?
  7. Did anything about Jodi's research surprise you? What did you learn?
  8. Did Jodi's Author Note change your reading experience at all?
  9. A Spark of Light is different than the traditional novel structure. How did you feel about the events of the story unfolding backwards? Did this structure affect your reading experience?


Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Ballantine Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

Never one to shy away from hot-button topics, bestselling author Jodi Picoult draws readers into the heart of the abortion debate with A Spark of Light.

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The central premise of A Spark of Light involves a gunman holding hostages within the confines of a Mississippi abortion clinic. Outside, anti-abortion protesters hold signs and give pamphlets to women entering the building. Inside, staff are going about their normal day when an enraged man enters—motive uncertain—firing a gun. A police department hostage-crisis team arrives on the scene, along with the media. The novel is presented in reverse chronology, which sustains the suspense and allows for the probing of the complexity of the central situation from different angles.

Picoult has crafted a cast of diverse and compelling characters, each with a vivid backstory. Flashbacks are woven seamlessly into the plot, which unfolds over the span of one day. Each character is at the clinic for a different reason. Izzy, the clinic RN, is pregnant but hasn't told anyone. She assists Dr. Louie Ward, who flies into town every week to perform abortions. This is the only clinic in the state that offers them, and Louie is devoted to serving women who have few other options. His mother died when he was a child due to complications from a folk-remedy "back-alley" abortion, and Louie is dedicated to patient care, despite receiving hate mail and death threats. He even befriends some of the regular protesters who confront him outside the clinic or at the airport. The doctor is something of a hero to those he serves, but he has faced his own doubts about performing abortions.

'Then God said, Let there be light,' Louie murmured to himself. He shook his head in wonder. Those infinitesimal bits of zinc determined whether an egg would become a completely new genetic entity. Science never failed to humble him, just as much as his faith, and he unequivocally believed that the two could exist side by side.

Joy, a patient, grew up in foster care and is working two jobs while attending college. Olive, a retired professor, uses the clinic for cancer care. Janine is disguised as a pregnant patient, but is really an anti-abortion activist. She's there to gather information to shut down the clinic. Bex is there because her 15-year-old niece, Wren, asked for moral support to get birth control. Bex fills in as a mother figure because Wren's mom is out of the picture. The gunman, George, erroneously believes the clinic is responsible for the near-death of his 17-year-old daughter Beth, who is in critical care at a regional hospital. She's also being held under arrest for taking illegal drugs in an attempt to abort her baby. Beth's public defender, Mandy, attends her bedside, offering advice and support while police stand guard.

The heart of the story develops between Wren and her single-father Hugh, the police hostage negotiator. Wren is at the clinic (without her father's knowledge) to get "the pill" because things are heating up with her long-term boyfriend. Hugh engages in a delicate dialogue with George, and the intricacies of the negotiations/conversations between the two men (via telephone) are suspenseful and fascinating. The detective discovers that he and George both have teen daughters, and that George's concern for Beth is in large part the motivation for his rage. George's history of grief and his relationship with weapons is complicated, providing tension and plot twists.

Picoult's nuanced exploration of multiple vantage points surrounding the abortion issue is to be commended. Details and dialogue reveal many facets of the anti-abortion and pro-choice stances. This novel expanded my own scientific understanding and personal beliefs. The book explores a frightening scenario that is all too plausible in this era where gun violence is an epidemic and issues like abortion are as polarizing as ever, if not more so.

A Spark of Light includes an author's note and resources; it's a dynamic choice for book groups. There are many themes ripe for discussion: secrets, abortion, the challenges of single father/motherhood, teen access to medical care, gun violence, racism, reluctant parenthood, medical ethics and many more.

As in real life, philosophic, religious, legal and scientific debates about "when life begins" remain unresolved at best, and the impetus for violent confrontations at worst. The author's thorough research and careful construction of plot are apparent, and she explores these divisive issues with sensitivity and tact.

Reviewed by Karen Lewis

Publishers Weekly
Picoult's extensive research shines throughout, but the book's reverse chronological structure interferes with the complicated back stories...Nevertheless, this is a powerful story that brings clarity to the history of abortion and investigates the voices on both sides of the issue.

Kirkus Reviews
Novels such as this extensively researched and passionate polemic are not necessarily art, but, like Sinclair Lewis' The Jungle, they are necessary.

Starred Review. Picoult delivers another riveting yarn... in this carefully crafted, utterly gripping tale.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Cloggie Downunder
yet another informative, insightful and thought-provoking read.
A Spark of Light is the twenty-third novel by popular American author, Jodi Picoult. In Jackson, Mississippi, a women’s clinic that provides, amongst other services, abortions is targeted daily by pro-life campaigners. They harass the staff and the clients as they enter and leave. But today is different: a gunman has entered the building and begun shooting.

Trained police hostage negotiator, Detective Lieutenant Hugh McElroy is soon on the scene to talk to the gunman, but within minutes learns that his daughter, Wren and his sister, Bex are inside the clinic along with other innocent hostages. As he tries to reason with the shooter, those inside struggle to help the injured without further enraging their captor.

The day’s events, as they unfold over ten hours, are told in reverse, with an epilogue resolving the dramatic end of the first chapter. As the story follows the path that directs each character to their destiny at the Clinic, their thoughts and dialogue give the reader a deep appreciation of their nature, their challenges, their passions. The shooter’s motivation and the series of events that leads up to his shocking actions illustrates how easily misunderstanding, desperation, a deficit of compassion and happenstance together can end in tragedy.

Picoult never hesitates to tackle controversial topics, nor does she in this latest work. The main issue is, of course, abortion, but many other related topics feature: the legal obstacles, the reason doctors and nurses work in these clinics, the for and against arguments, the situations where abortion seems appropriate, the fallacies that are spouted by pro-lifers, inequity between laws that protect the foetus and those protecting the mother, the legal inconsistencies between states, the import of illegal abortion drugs from China, and even the semantics surrounding the issue.

While many will feel that her treatment of the topic is balanced, Picoult’s latest novel is bound to polarise readers. The depth of her research is apparent and she backs it up with an extensive bibliography. In the Author’s Note, Picoult gives a succinct quote regards pro-lifer activities from a woman who has had an abortion: “I don’t need people shaming me because of a choice that already hurt my heart to have to make.” Picoult gives the reader yet another informative, insightful and thought-provoking read.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by Allen & Unwin.

Rated 3 of 5 of 5 by Abba
A spark of fizzle
Maybe my expectations were too high, but I was disappointed by the lack of thought provocation— the author weaves about 3 too many lives together throughout the story where I was truly hoping for more than the run-of-the-abortion mill talking points. There were some lovely character constructs of the lives that interweave to create this story, but it definitely left a lot to be desired.

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The History of the Condom

Linen condom with instruction manual manufactured by Italian physician Gabriele FallopioWomen's health clinics like the one depicted in A Spark of Light offer many services beyond abortion, including providing access to pregnancy prevention tools like condoms. The condom is arguably the oldest pregnancy prevention method used by men that's still widely used today, albeit its early popularity was more to do with protecting against venereal diseases than for birth control. It's not the earliest form of birth prevention on record though; that honor goes to the pessary with records from 1850 BC showing Egyptian women using a combination of crocodile dung, honey and sodium carbonate to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

Some historians believe that condom usage can be traced back to the ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian civilizations, though the documents that bear mention of such devices are obscure and open to interpretation. The history of the condom as we know it today begins in the 16th century, when physician and noted scholar of anatomy Gabriele Falloppio (1523–1562) experimented with linen sheaths to prevent transmission of syphilis. He claimed that in a "clinical trial" of more than 1,000 men who used the device, none were infected. Syphilis was at that time a life-threatening epidemic in Europe and Asia. Falloppio was primarily focused on men's health in these endeavors, but he is also credited with identifying various parts of the female anatomy, including the fallopian tubes, which are named for him.

The first known usage of the word condom is in a 1666 English document attributing the declining birth rate to "condons." Its etymology is unclear; 18th century documents talk of a Dr Condon, physician to British King Charles II, but there is no sign of such a person in contemporary records. Another, perhaps more plausible theory is that it's derived from the words con (with) and doma (roof).

Condom usage became increasingly common in the 18th century (despite the complaints of moralists), and were still available in the linen form popularized by Falloppio, but also manufactured from animal bladders or intestines.

Condom technology took a great leap forward in the 1800s with the invention and manufacturing of rubber, although, again, not without controversy. Sententious objectors claimed that condoms encouraged promiscuity, and laws allowed for "rubbers" to be used to prevent infection but not as contraceptives. In many parts of the world, condoms were completely illegal. (The condom has a remarkably complicated legal history, which is beyond the scope of this article.) After latex was developed in the early 1900s, condom manufacturing became cheaper and allowed for great variety of styles, sizes, textures and colors. During World War I, Germany supplied their soldiers with condoms, while Britain and America did not. By the end of the war, the American military had diagnosed nearly 400,000 soldiers with syphilis and gonorrhea. The U.S. military began providing soldiers with condoms during World War II and has continued this practice to the present day.

After going on the market in 1960, the birth control pill quickly became the most popular form of contraception, but condoms remained the second most popular. The 1980s and 1990s saw a rise in condom usage, facilitated by public health campaigns dedicated to encouraging their use after the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic. This is when condoms became available in drug stores, convenience stores and supermarkets. Condoms are often available for free or at a very low cost at Planned Parenthood and other women's health clinics, though it is important to note that they are only 85-98% effective in preventing pregnancy.

Image of linen condom and manual from 1813

Filed under Cultural Curiosities

By Karen Lewis

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