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A Spark of Light

by Jodi Picoult

A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult X
A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2018, 384 pages

    Paperback:
    Sep 2019, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Karen Lewis
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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.

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

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in October 2018, and has been updated for the October 2019 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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