Despite disappointing recent releases (her past four novels have shockingly been tales of predictability) Jodi Picoult has prevailed once again. In “The Storyteller,” she expertly crafts the character of Sage, a 20-something baker with a tantalizing secret, the evidence of which is plastered across the left side of her face. Sage is virtually alone; her mother and father both passed away and her sisters lead drastically different lives from her own. She revels in a job that forces her to work at night, in the hours where human interaction is few and far. That is, until she meets 95-year-old Josef Weber, the town’s favorite grandfather, at her weekly grief group. He coached little league, participated in the 4th of July parade, and visits Our Daily Bread bakery nightly with his dog, Eva. She soon realizes, however, that this growing friendship is a bit more complicated than she had originally anticipated. One afternoon, Josef asks something of Sage; he wants her to help him die. Startled, Sage questions his motives and soon discovers a secret he has kept for over 60 years: Josef was once a Nazi soldier and workedsuch as Auschwitz. This request is further intensified by the fact that Sage’s family is Jewish, and her living grandmother Minka is a Holocaust survivor. Josef finds this trait desirable, something that he has been searching for in his death.
The first account views of Sage and Josef are interspersed with flashback chapters by Minka. It is in these chapters that Jodi shines. Minka’s story begins in a world of bakery treats and best friend sleepovers. Picoult transitions her character so flawlessly into the life of a concentration camp inmate that readers are forced to step into the shoes of Minka and smell the putrid scents of burning flesh, see the death of a confidant, and picture themselves reaching a stark 70-pound frame. Minka witnesses tragedy after tragedy, and yet she finds luck in the fact that she can speak the language of her oppressors. To this she owes her life. As readers, we will never quite know the horrific experience of a Holocaust survivor. Yet Picoult’s bone-chilling and graphic imagery forces us to place ourselves into the fear and despair that Minka experiences for over three years.
Picoult’s willingness to unearth controversial issues and research them extensively is perhaps her most admirable trait as a writer. For “The Storyteller,” she interviewed three Holocaust survivors and combined their tales to create the character of Minka. There are winks and nods to their stories throughout the novel.
With a writing style and unexpected twists that are classic Picoult, her latest endeavor forces us to question: if Sage were to help Josef in his quest, is it an act of mercy or revenge? I recommend that you pick it up to find out.