Hazel McHaffie

The Covid pandemic – fact and fiction

It’s some years since I read a Jodi Picoult book, but this one, Wish You were Here, seemed to challenge me to overcome my personal reservations about fictionalising the horrors of Covid-19 – all that fear and death and loss and trauma. So I swallowed hard and bought it, and I read it immediately before I could chicken out. OK, yes, I have hangups here which might prejudice my review; I declare them openly.

The story is set at the beginning of the pandemic and features a couple separated by it. Diana, an art specialist, is marooned on an island in the Galápagos that has closed down almost completely against the virus, while her doctor boyfriend, Finn, is marooned in a hospital in New York City as Covid rushes through and over them like a tsunami.

Virtually cut off from her former life, Diana finds herself examining everything that has brought her to this point, and wondering just what the future holds.

… you don’t often get to pause and reflect on [your life]. It’s just really hard to sit in the moment, and not worry if pause is going to turn into stop.

In a strange way, being stripped of everything – my job, my significant other, even my clothing and my language – has left only the essential pert of me, and it feels more real than everything I have tried to be for years. It’s almost as if I had to stop running in order to see myself clearly, and what I see is a person who’s been driving towards a goal for so long she can’t remember why she set it in the first place.

Thus far, so Picoult! She’s famous for her psychological takes after all.

Half way through I’m getting bored. It all feels too contrived. The medical updates Finn sends to Diana smack of an author wanting to cram the facts she’s learned during her research into her story somewhere. We’ve all had our fill of what Covid did in real life and that so recently; we know the facts. And surely no man worth his salt would bore his girlfriend with so much inappropriate information in an email when she’s on holiday … would he? So I was beginning to consider abandoning the book … when, uh-oh, page 183, and Picoult changes the narrative in one fell swoop.

I won’t spoil the story-line for others, but suffice it to say the rest of the book gave me a second wind because I was mentally revising the impressions of the preceding half. But a big bit of me was thinking, Did she just commit the cardinal sin on a par with ‘It was all a dream’? Even if not, it’s the impact Covid has had on our lives that dominates. However, Picoult is adopting a fairly unusual angle – the psychological legacy, and this might well be appealing to readers coming from a different background from mine.

So, what did I conclude? Well, I was interested to read she too was reluctant to write during her time of quarantine and isolation, and I have to admire her ability and determination in rising above that resistance. But I’m afraid my personal reservations about making this real-life horror into a made-up story so close to the lived experience prevented me from really entering into it. The actual emotional and mental trauma has been too great. Sorry, Jodi, this one wasn’t for me.

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