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My Sister’s Keeper
by Jodi Picoult
Realistic Fiction
2004

My Sister’s Keeper is a very powerful and moving story. This novel deals with family tragedy and how different members of the family are affected by it. Specifically, it is a story about a girl with a serious illness and the impact her leukemia has on her family. At the beginning, the parents seek more typical solutions to extend their daughter’s life. As the story develops however, the novel becomes more complex as it talks about some very important topics. Deciding to have another child, who is a perfect genetic match for their sick child, represents a major issue. This is such a powerful book because it deals with genetic engineering, a highly debated topic. This book clearly shows that there are no easy answers and no clear right or wrong ways of approaching this issue. There is conflict everywhere as all the members of the family struggle with how to best deal with this genetic manipulation. The book is moving because it very much affects your emotions.

“It starts when Kate screams in the bathroom. I race upstairs and jimmy the lock to find my nine-year old standing in front of a toilet splattered with blood. Blood runs down her legs too and has soaked through her underpants. This is the calling card for APL—hemorrhage in all sorts of masks and disguises. Kate’s had rectal bleeding before, but she was a toddler; she would not remember. “It’s all right,” I say calmly. I get a warm washcloth to clean her up, and find a sanitary napkin for her underwear. I watch her try to position the bulk of pads between her legs. This is the moment I would have had with her when she got her period; will she live long enough for that?” (p 224 – Sara).

The story which takes place in modern day Long Island, deals with the illness of 16-year old Kate, who has suffered from leukemia most of her life. Trying to save their daughter, Kate’s parents, Sara and Brian, decide to have another baby whom they name Anna. She is a perfect combination of genetic material matched with the genetics of her sister. Anna’s parents use Anna’s umbilical cord to provide the life support needed to keep Kate alive. Unfortunately, this one procedure is not enough to save Kate. Over the course of the next 13 years, Anna is forced to undergo many medical procedures to help keep her sister alive. She donates blood, bone marrow and other bodily parts to keep her sister from dying. During these tough times, Anna’s older brother Jesse grows angry about all the attention being paid to Kate and he begins to act out and distances himself from his family.

As she gets older and starts to think on her own, Anna believes she is being used. She wants to make her own decisions about helping her sister. The conflict rests in Kate’s desire to take control over her own body, but at the same time manage her concern about losing her sister if she does not cooperate. Anna loves Kate, and does not want her to die but at the same time does not want to be “her sister’s keeper.” Therefore, Anna seeks out Campbell, a lawyer, to help her with an important decision.  

“When I was little the great mystery to me wasn’t how babies were made but why. The mechanics I understood – my older brother Jess had filled me in – although at the time I was sure he’d heard half of it wrong. Other kids my age were busy looking up the words penis or vagina in the classroom dictionary when the teacher had her back turned but I paid attention to different details. Like why some mothers only had one child while other families seemed to multiply before your eyes.” (p 7 – Anna)

Two important themes in the book deal with family and individuality. Although they are part of the same family, the individuals cannot seem to get along as a unit. Kate is very sick and struggling to stay alive. Sara, the mother, is a strong character trying to do everything possible to save her dying daughter even if it means risking the happiness of the rest of the family. Brian, the father, is quiet and constantly escapes to his world at the fire station to hide from all his troubles. Anna, the youngest child, is the central character of the story and struggles throughout the book between doing what she views as right and wrong. She truly loves her sister, and wants her to live, but she feels that only one of them can live. It is either Kate or herself, and she chooses a life of her own. Jesse is the older sibling who cannot deal with his life, and pulls himself away from everyone and rebels. The parents are torn in many directions – trying to save their dying daughter, yet wanting to pay attention to the other children and lead a more normal life. The siblings try to get along but are constantly arguing because of Kate’s illness. 

The other major theme deals with individuality. Anna especially, wants very much to be her own person. She wants to be free to act on her own and not always be a part of her sister’s life. She does not want to live in her sister’s shadow and not enjoy a normal life because of her sister’s illness. She wants to make her own decisions even if it hurts others. She does not want people to take advantage of her just because she has the right genes. She wants to be valued for her own self, not for being a donor. Jesse also wants attention. He wants people to appreciate him for who he is. He tries so very hard to gain attention by completely secluding himself from his family. He winds up sleeping above the garage, as if he is a stranger.

This book reminds me of a time in my family’s life three years ago when we experienced something very serious. My older brother, Terence, was injured in a ski accident in Maine and was in the hospital in Intensive Care for many weeks. He was put on a ventilator because he could not breathe on his own with chest tubes pumping blood from his lungs for weeks. Terence had many, many infections. He was in a coma hooked up to machines to keep him alive. The hospital, in which he was located, was 300 miles away from home. My mom and dad were by his bedside for many weeks waiting for him to get better. During this time it was very scary because my siblings and I did not know would happen to my brother and we did not see our parents. Our nanny took care of us, but we were worried and missed our brother and parents. When Terence finally came home, he looked awful, thin, weak, and unable to get around too well. Although the situation in this book is more serious and more tragic, it expresses many of the same feelings I had during my brother’s illness – fear, concern, caring, anger, being forgotten.

Jodi Picoult writes the book from the perspectives of all the characters. This style truly allows the reader to see both sides of the conflict, because each character has a different view on the story. I believe that mother’s would be able to relate to Sara’s point of view in many ways. Sara is trying to do what is best for her dying daughter and therefore sides with Kate.

Sara’s husband is very confused, and eventually decides to help Anna, but not completely defend her. I am sure that many women have had cases where they do not agree with their husbands, such as this one. I also think this book would be very suitable for anyone with a sister. Kate and Anna have a very tight relationship, which other girls could relate. The ending really surprises the reader because Kate and Anna have a secret of their own. I would recommend this to all people over 13 years of age. There are many advanced scientific concepts that children under the age of 13 might not understand.  

   I give this novel the highest rating – three out of three stars. Jodi Picoult grabs the reader from the very beginning with her amazing story. She researched the topic of cancer and donor information in great detail to make the story realistic. She presents the characters and their conflicts in a very convincing manner and she keeps the reader’s interest throughout the book. Jodi Picoult is such an amazing author that she sways the reader’s emotions with her words. This book affected my emotions so much that I cried at the end. It is a must read!

Mark      December 2005



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