A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult

By Ekta R. Garg

October 10, 2018

Genre: Women’s fiction

Release date: October 8, 2018

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A gunman takes hostages in a women’s health center to make a statement about abortion. The hostage negotiator learns that his daughter is inside the center and fights to keep his composure. The gunman, the negotiator, his daughter, and the other people in the center live through the most tense day of their lives as the hours unfold. Author Jodi Picoult brings her strengths as researcher and compassionate listener to a sensitive and timely issue in A Spark of Light, a book that, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to her previous novels.

In Jackson, Mississippi, there’s only one place where women can get legal abortions. The Center offers other female health services, of course, but none brings on the protestors like the termination of pregnancies does. When Hugh McElroy gets the call to a gunman who has barricaded himself and others at the Center, he’s prepared to talk the shooter off his mental ledge.

Hugh knows that a hostage situation means almost anything can happen; he’s negotiated with enough angry people to expect it. Even he’s not prepared, however, for discovering that his only child and older sister are inside the Center. His 15-year-old daughter, Wren, is the greatest joy of his life, and his sister, Bex, taught him everything he needed to know. If he were to go by the book, Hugh should walk away from the situation and let another officer engage in negotiations but he doesn’t.

Single father George Goddard has definite ideas about right and wrong, and when his daughter, Lil, shares news that lands her in the “wrong” camp, George goes on a rampage. He travels to the Center because he knows that’s where she got the crazy idea for the abortion in the first place. They twisted his daughter’s mind; he’s going to make sure they don’t do it to anyone else.

Except he didn’t think through his plan; he just grabbed a gun and showed up at the Center. Now people have died, and he’s dealing with a know-it-all cop on the outside. No one, inside the Center or out, has any clue of the pain he carries in his heart.

Throughout the day, Hugh and George talk while trying not to give up on any ground. Inside the Center, the hostages share bits and pieces of their lives. The pro-life protestor who came in undercover to find damning evidence against the Center, the nurse who showed up for an abortion, the pro-life doctor who performs the procedures, and Wren and Bex all face the prospect that they might die on this day. With every person who gets shot, their chances of survival start to shrink.

Author Jodi Picoult shares in her note at the end of the book that she interviewed more than 150 women and shadowed three abortion doctors for this story. Her research shines through every character’s voice and experience. She does complete justice to both points of view, dissolving into each character with an authenticity that can’t be denied.


Other choices for the book, however, make it falter. Picoult chose to tell the story in reverse order, starting with the end of the day and progressing to the beginning. The device makes the plot feel contrived; there is no real advantage to the story or the development of the characters in going backward. In fact, at times parts of the novel feel a little redundant because readers are asked to treat information they’ve already learned as back story when it’s often anything but.

Picoult does reveal a couple of surprises late in the story, but the reverse storytelling technique doesn’t enhance the discoveries. They could have just as easily been shared at other points in a more conventional method. Their impact would have meant just as much.

The method Picoult uses distracts enough from the story that it reduces her thoughtful writing to another book about a polarizing issue, when in fact she maintains an even balance. Diehard Picoult fans will probably appreciate her storytelling style, but readers new to her work may want to check out her other books first. I recommend readers Borrow A Spark of Light.