“Wish You Were Here” by Jodi Picoult; Ballantine Books (338 pages, $28.99)
March 13, 2020. The first words of Jodi Picoult’s novel strike dread, or at least trepidation. Do we really want to relive those disorienting, soul-crushing first days of the shutdown felt around the world?
“Wish You Were Here” doesn’t shy away from the devastation of COVID-19 — but it’s simply the springboard, born of Picoult’s enforced isolation, for a tale of self-discovery. The aforementioned date of infamy is the day Diana O’Toole’s boyfriend, Finn, informs her that as a New York City doctor, he can’t possibly take their planned getaway to the Galapagos Islands. But “you should still go,” he tells her, words that will haunt.
Whether this is a good idea is largely ignored. And so Diana jets off the next day, leaving behind Finn, her ailing mother and her job as a rising star at Sotheby’s. Maybe the journey to the exotic unknown will help gloss over her failure to procure a coveted Toulouse-Lautrec from the enigmatic Kotomi Ito (who bears more than a passing likeness to a certain musician who broke up the Beatles).
Exotic and remote it may be, but the Galapagos is in the throes of lockdown, as well. Travel-weary Diana is greeted by a deserted landscape; her luggage lost, her hotel shuttered, no ATM or Wi-Fi or cell signal. It’s only through the kindness of an old woman, Abuela — grandmother — that she finds a bit of sustenance and a bed for the night.
Nights turn into weeks turn into months. With no way to leave, Diana finds a home in this quiet paradise with Abuela, her grandson Gabriel and great-granddaughter Beatriz, who overcome their initial resentment to warm to her in quite different ways. For the teenage Beatriz it is finding a mother surrogate to unburden herself on matters of family, art, love and sex. For Gabriel, a tour guide with no one to guide, it’s gratitude on his daughter’s behalf — and also, sex.
Oh, and Finn? The e-mails that straggle through are litanies of the wreckage he’s seeing every day, interspersed with guilt and remorse at their separation. Diana’s attempts to reach him — by text, e-mail, even postcard — are desperate at first, more sporadic as the days tick by. Is it possible she’s found everything she needs? “In a strange way, being stripped of everything — my job, my significant other, even my clothing and my language — has left only the essential part of me,” she muses.
But return she must, in a most unusual manner. As the ravages of COVID hit close to home, Diana can’t shake the memories of the islands and doesn’t really want to. How can she return to the business of selling art, after discovering that she is herself an artist? How can she marry Finn, after her profound connection with Gabriel?
Picoult abandons her usual stylistic tricks — except for one big one — and it makes for a satisfying and thought-provoking narrative of a woman whose entire ecosystem has shifted. The truth of Diana’s story is revealed in her heart-to-heart with her new young confidante. “I have to go back to real life sometime,” she says. To which Beatriz responds wistfully, “For a while, didn’t this feel real?”