History, lost love, and the road not taken in Jodi Picoult’s latest novel
Jodi Picoult's The Book of Two Ways (Ballantine Books, 2020) discusses with great candour the complexities of human choices, of love, regret, death, and other tumultuous complications that make up life. This book couldn't have arrived at a more fitting time, because in many ways it addresses the perpetual uncertainty that has plagued minds throughout the past year and still continues to do so.
The story begins with Dawn McDowell, our protagonist who is flying home to Boston when the aircraft she is on has to make a sudden and potentially dangerous landing. Dawn is a death doula by profession, which means she assists terminally ill patients with the process of dying. As the plane dives for the crash, she expects to meet her own death, and her life flashes before her eyes. She does not, however, see the face of her physicist husband, Brian, or their moments together; nor does she see their daughter Meret and her many stages of growing up. When Dawn closes her eyes during what could have been her last moments, she sees Wyatt Armstrong, a man she had once loved and abandoned long ago. Along with the memory of Wyatt, Dawn's mind is flooded with the dull yet persistent jabs of doubt about past choices, silent regrets, and a timorous thirst to put them to rest. Dawn miraculously survives the crash and in a moment of impulse, switches her travel route to Egypt where she had last seen Wyatt 15 years ago.
The book follows Dawn in her two lives, one in Boston—with Brian and their daughter, where a mask of comfort and predictability eclipses the slow yet permanent cracks forming in their marriage, and where her job as a death doula was never the first choice; and another in Middle Egypt—with Wyatt, where they were rivalling post-graduate students of Egyptology, unearthing wondrous history together and falling in love. Both her lives mirror each other in the most surreal, and an almost poetic manner.
In this latest novel, the author of the acclaimed Small Great Things (2016)—which is soon to be starred in by Viola Davis and Julia Roberts—discusses many interesting parallels: fate versus free will, science versus mythology, life and death, past and present, and growth and comfort, among a myriad of others. Picoult wonders if the laws of quantum physics are in fact splitting us into different versions of ourselves, each believing that the road taken is destined. She questions whether destiny is determined through choices alone or whether we are inevitably headed towards the same fate no matter what path we ultimately choose to follow.
This core question, and the book's title, is influenced by an ancient Egyptian coffin text known as The Book of Two Ways. This coffin text is said to be a map to the underworld which charts two possible routes, one by land and another by water. In Dawn's life, water represents her safe and familiar existence in Boston and land signifies lost opportunities: an incomplete love story and forgotten career aspirations in Egypt. Picoult uses quantum physics, Egyptology, the possibility of the existence of parallel worlds, and the philosophy of hospice to tell this multi-faceted story of loss, self-discovery, and the limits of love.
The Book of Two Ways does have the power to overwhelm your senses with its assemblage of information and the heart-wrenching moral choices the characters are forced to make. But this is the signature Jodi Picoult we all love and appreciate. She asks quite simply, throughout the book: Who would you have been if you hadn't become who you are? Why am I alive when many others aren't? What is left unfinished?
In this Covid-ridden world, where death, unemployment, and lost opportunities have forced many of us to seek alternative paths for livelihood and happiness, there are perhaps no words more appropriate than a quote from Picoult's novel, "Ancient Egyptians believed that the first and most necessary ingredient in the universe was chaos. It could sweep you away, but it was also the place from which all things start anew." Perhaps 2021 is the start of something new for us too—an opportunity to revive abandoned dreams, heal from loss, rebuild from the rubble and ashes of a pandemic-ravaged world and start anew. A hopeful book is a good place to start.
Sameirah Nasrin Ahsan is a mechanical engineer in Dhaka. She aspires to be an author someday. For now, she is content with reading and sharing the stories that make her think beyond herself. Instagram: @booksnher.