Art Notes: Jodi Picoult’s latest novel explores how life has shifted in the pandemic

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Author Jodi Picoult in a July 2021 photograph. Photo/ Tim Llewellyn

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Of all the world’s writers, Jodi Picoult seems least amenable to sequestration. The irrepressible author of more books than Dickens, Picoult typically travels to research her novels and revels in book tours that allow her to connect with readers.

So the coronavirus pandemic has been tough.

“I honestly was completely overwhelmed,” Picoult said Tuesday. She has asthma, so she took lockdown seriously. For 15 months she left her Hanover home only to take walks and hikes. But as a master of topical fiction, Picoult spent a lot of time contemplating the pandemic. It is a world-changing episode, but how will people change?

The fruit of her curiosity, the novel Wish You Were Here, comes out Tuesday. It’s one of very few books, so far, to address the pandemic and its effects.

Norwich Bookstore is partnering with Still North Books & Bar to host a conversation between Picoult and Vermont author Chris Bohjalian at 7 p.m. Dec. 3 at the Hanover Inn. There’s a link for tickets at the Norwich Bookstore’s website, Ticket purchase includes a signed copy of the book. Masks and proof of COVID-19 vaccination will be required to attend the event.

The new book wasn’t one Picoult had planned. She and Jennifer Boylan already had a contract to write a book, one that’s slated to come out in 2022. With nothing else to do when last year’s lockdown began, they got right to work and finished it.

Once that manuscript was turned in, it was easy to drift. Mustering the attention to read books was hard, to say nothing of writing one.But Picoult felt both a sense of duty and an interest in how the lockdown affected people who were caught up in it.

“I think it’s kind of up to the artists of the world to figure that out,” she said.

She saw the story of a Japanese tourist who stayed in Peru after his plan to visit Machu Picchu, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was blocked by the pandemic. He stayed in the Peruvian village of Aguas Calientes and finally visited Machu Picchu in October when the government opened it just for him.

What would it be like to be stranded somewhere far from home? Picoult wondered.

She started writing last November and opted to set the story in the Galapagos Islands, where she and her husband, Tim Van Leer, and their three then-young children, had once taken a family vacation.

She pulled out family photographs and did some online research that turned up a Scottish teacher who was stranded on Isabela Island at the start of the pandemic. She found him through social media and talked to him about his experience.

“Setting the book in the Galapagos was this amazing metaphor dropped in my lap,” she said. Charles Darwin came up with his theory of evolution during a trip to the Galapagos. Where better to situate a story about someone who faces adversity and must adapt?

Wish You Were Here follows Diana O’Toole, a picture of upper middle-class success who’s got her life all planned out. She’s working at Sotheby’s in New York and expects her doctor boyfriend, Finn, will soon propose. A comfortable suburban life awaits.

A passage from the book on Picoult’s website spells out Diana’s dilemma. When their Galapagos trip comes up, Finn has to stay at the hospital to deal with the first COVID-19 cases, and Diana travels to the Pacific on her own.

Soon she is marooned on Isabela Island, trapped by the pandemic.

Diana is the first-person narrator. “I do not like it when plans change,” she tells the reader.

“Suddenly it hits me: in an effort to seem more chill than I actually am, I have just stranded myself on an island,” she continues.

The author of 27 novels that have sold tens of millions of copies worldwide, Picoult is a master of plot twists. and she said Wish You Were Here contains the sharpest turn she’s written yet. She sent it to her publisher in February, and they moved quickly to bring the book out, even as other authors have had their publication dates pushed back. That’s called clout.

Writing about the pandemic from her isolation in Hanover helped her put it into perspective, Picoult said.

“It functioned as like a blueprint for me to figure out how we move forward,” she said.

The pandemic put the shallow ambitions of modern life — financial success, prestige, influence — into wider context, she said. People were forced to deal with fundamental things that they had long taken for granted: their health and the health of their family, whether they could hold the hand of a dying loved one.

“None of us realized until 2020 that that was a privilege,” Picoult said.

After her isolation, Picoult is looking forward to being in public again to promote the book. She did a virtual book tour last fall, with events held entirely online.

“For me, the hardest part was not connecting with readers,” she said.

An online event with 1,000 people furnished her with a wide audience, but no connection. “You have no idea what the reaction is on the other side” of the computer screen, she said.

She’s fully vaccinated, and her publisher, Simon & Schuster, set up an in-person book tour for her by scouting bookstores in places with high vaccination rates and low rates of transmission. There’s no substitute for personal contact.

This, then, is the last lesson of the pandemic: “How to have a life in spite of a virus that’s going to be with us forever.”

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