Vanishing ActsJodi Picoult’s Overly Literary Attempt at Identity Issues

By: Jodi Picoult

Delia Hopkins has an annoyingly idyllic life: a loving fiancé, a male best friend who is ready to wait in the wings forever, a doting father, and an adorable little girl. The few dark shades of her past are removing themselves from her. She mourns a mother whom she never had, a mother removed by circumstance in the form of a deadly car crash. She worries that her fiancé will return to his alcoholism, an event that will lead her to separate herself, and her impressionable young child away from him. So far, he’s attended AA and the situation is looking up. She has finally accepted his marriage proposal.

And so, on this sunny day, there’s an all’s-right-with-the-world atmosphere. Delia has taken Bella, her bloodhound, out to look for a missing person and the find was successful. However, when the doorbell rings and the normal clanks, arguments, and love that defines family life is shattered, Delia must reinvent herself, her past, and her own motivations for the future. Delia Hopkins is none-other-than Bethany Matthews and her mother is alive and well. On trial for kidnapping his daughter and changing their identities, Delia’s father is torn between revealing the full truth to her, or following the lie all the way to jail and his inevitable death there. Meanwhile, Delia’s fiancé and her best friend (childhood friends themselves) are forced to reconcile their mutual love and desire for Delia.

Narrated from five separate points of view (something achieved via several voice actors in the incredibly produced, complicated audiobook), Vanishing Acts focuses on identity and how lies become truth and truth represents only what we allow ourselves to believe. It’s an interesting quandary (albeit, greatly overdone) and the amnesia like meanderings of Delia and her “who am I, how can I ever know myself” dilemma takes the story down a strange avenue where we meet a Native American woman who functions as the wise old figure in this story of lost identity . . . or how to define identity . . .or how to cope with addiction . . . or why a person becomes addicted . . .or who to trust . . .or who to love or . . . well, you know, whatever the hell this story is about. Just know that it’s deep, and complicated and Picoult wants you to recognize its ponderous weight and the very epic-ness of its scope. If the cliché of Native American lore and the wise old woman figure don’t clue you off, then I’m afraid you are a hopeless audience incapable of literary merit.

Ok, ok, so I might have gotten a bit sarcastic there. The point is, you know when you read a story that is impressed with itself or with the universality of what it is trying to do. Each phrase and movement, each description, takes on a weight that is too much for it, and everything acquires that sad overtone of oppression – literary oppression where the words and simple descriptions are expected to do more than possible. This bogs down an already slow paced story which flips between examining relationships, love, self-identity, and alcoholism. Frankly, the novel should have only picked one of these heavy concepts instead of trying to cover all of them. Then, perhaps, the courtroom moral quandary formula (one which Picoult often employees) would have effected readers on a deeper level, instead of leaving us counting pages and thinking of the next, hopefully better, book we’ll get a chance to read.

The segments told through Andrew’s (aka the father’s) perspective are even more perplexing. His detailed time in jail, including his friendship of an ex-Crypt, his sudden acclimation and acceleration at convict life, and his detailed description of how to make meth, don’t fit into the story at all and don’t reveal anything about Delia or his reasons for taking her. These are merely misnomers painting graphically brutal prison life that don’t fit into the overall story.

The second plotline which fails to support the narrative’s seeming list is the love triangle. Delia, Eric (her fiancé and father of her child), and Fitz all grew up together, a band of three best friends. Things get complicated when Delia pressures Eric into defending her father, and as he struggles to save his relationship with the woman he loves by capitulating to all her demands (which incidentally, put him in danger of being disbarred), we get to hear Fitz’s whiny sentiments about how he too craves Delia and only her. Both men are able to remain friends and rivals without any bad blood, and Delia’s wishy-washy flow between the two of them just showcases how much of a non-character she is. Her identity issues stem less from her forgotten childhood and more from her inability to make a decision or be honest with herself. She never crystallizes as a character, merely a caricature meant to represent those deep themes. Because she is the glue holding the narrative together and the characters in position to each other, this flaw in development makes all the stories weak and forced.

Likewise, logical developments within the tale leave unconnected threads. Why did Andrew attack his wife’s lover six months before taking Delia? If his revelation, which he later undermines, regarding the attack is true, then the timing of his reaction destroys the believability of the tale. Everything we learn is continually undermined until it becomes clear that there is no truth – something which I think the novel does deliberately yet, inexplicably. Delia seems to think that truth is a fluid entity which she can shape to her desire and the novel seems to nod along with this surrealistic interpretation – yet none of it fits. If these traumatic events, including changed identities and kidnappings, were caused by nothing . . . then are our characters insane? Imbalanced? Overly dramatic? Or simply rough drafts of a storyline that feels incomplete, the entire plot engineered to make a point instead of reacting to events in the characters’ lives.

The audio book, produced by Recorded Books, was the only element of Vanishing Acts that I truly enjoyed. The production was very high quality, with readers for each character which made the tale come alive. Some of the inherent beauty of Picoult’s wording and sentence structure shone through in such a setting and while the story had flaws, the presentation was still immersive. Readers had to continue because the voice actors compelled us while the story and characters . . . .well, we tolerated them.

  • Frances Carden
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Frances Carden
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