The cover of author Jodi Picoult's new novel, 'The Storyteller'. (Atria )
Jodi Picoult is a familiar name to those of us who race through the Hudson News stores at LAX just before we board a plane. We are smug in our certainty — we know what we're getting when we pluck one of her novels from the pile. Her prose goes down easy, and she fills her stories with characters confronted by moral quandaries and life-changing decisions.
That's certainly the case in "The Storyteller," which opens with the narration of Sage Singer, a lonely young baker who befriends a 95-year-old man in her grief support group. A former teacher and youth sports coach, well respected in the community, Josef Weber appears at first glance as though he might fulfill Sage's deep need for human contact.
But this is a Jodi Picoult novel, and Josef presents Sage with a dilemma worthy of the Lifetime Channel: He is a former SS officer who confesses to killing thousands of Jews. Her family is Jewish. Their friendship is in its infancy when he begs her to kill him.
The mysteries of Sage's background haunt the margins of "The Storyteller." Her mother is dead, but details are hard to come by. Minka, Sage's Polish grandmother, is a Holocaust survivor, but her tale of survival is all but unknown to her granddaughter. Sage's good looks are marred by recent and very visible scarring on her face, "a jagged lightning bolt splitting [its] symmetry.... It's a map of where my life went wrong."
Picoult unspools the details a few bits at a time, using multiple narrators and time frames. Indeed, there are several stories that unfold in "The Storyteller": Sage's, Josef 's and her grandmother's. In addition, the saga of Sage and Josef and Minka is interspersed with another piece of fiction, one that spins out in fairy-tale-like fashion.
Ania, the heroine of the story within the story, is the daughter of the village baker. Two men vie for her attention: Damian, the arrogant captain of the guard, and Aleksander, an intriguing stranger who emerges just as people start dying and villagers start to whisper of upiórs — the Polish version of vampires. Eventually we learn that Ania's tale was crafted by Minka, written during the years she struggled to stay alive in the camps. And it's more than a work of fiction; Minka's fairy tale mirrors the destruction of her family and her world.
"I read about Ania, and her father," Sage says, "and hear my grandmother's voice; I imagine my great-grandfather's face.... I can smell the peat burning and taste the ash on the bottom of their bread."
In Minka's own harrowing narrative, she recalls the looming specter of disappearance and death; her symbiotic relationship with her Nazi overlord at Auschwitz; and his obsession with her writing, with the characters of Ania and Aleksander, a "monster with remorse."
In a sense, Minka plays the role of Scheherazade; when he demands "ten more pages" it seems likely she will live another day. It's a familiar story arc and yet it is the most compelling part of the novel.
When Picoult brings us back to the present day to conclude "The Storyteller," the plot starts to sag again. But that doesn't mean she has inflicted a tidy conclusion on her readers. Complex moral questions are asked — When is a betrayal forgivable? Does it matter if a monster develops a conscience? — and there are as many answers as there are readers. That's the real secret of Jodi Picoult. Scratch the burnished surface of her formulaic success and some wisdom emerges.
Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 480 pp., $28.99