Jodi Picoult excels at examining "ripped from the headlines" issues in her novels; her newest, Change of Heart, is no exception. The story involves Shay Bourne, a 33-year-old carpenter who becomes New Hampshire's first Death Row inmate in nearly 60 years, when he is convicted of murdering two people. His victims are 7-year-old Elizabeth Nealon and her stepfather, police officer Kurt Nealon. Because of the heinous nature of the crimes, Shay is sentenced to death by lethal injection.
The bulk of the story takes place 11 years after Shay's conviction. With the day of his execution edging closer and closer, Shay begs for the chance to make his death meaningful by donating his heart to Elizabeth's younger sister, Claire, who will die without a transplant. Prison officials scoff at the idea, but determined ACLU lawyer Maggie Bloom promises to help him carry out his wish. With the help of Shay's spiritual advisor, Father Michael, Maggie puts her ambitious plan into action. The plan, of course, is not without its complications. For one thing, Father Michael has not divulged his big secret - he served on the jury that convicted Shay - to either Maggie or Shay. More importantly, however, is the fact that a good chunk of Americans believe the Death Row inmate is, in fact, Jesus Christ. Although Shay makes no such claims, the evidence seems irrefutable - not only is he a 33-year-old carpenter of ambigious birth (he's been in foster care all his life), but he's also performing miracles. Fellow inmates see him turn water into wine, erase hideous sores from an AIDS sufferer, bring a bird back to life, and distribute one piece of Bazooka chewing gum to multiple prisoners. Father Michael hears him preach from Gnostic texts, despite the fact that Shay has had no religious training whatsoever. Because of all this, thousands gather outside the prison, convinced that Christ's Second Coming has come to pass. Of course, there are also hordes of opposers, who claim the inmate is exactly what he appears to be - a cold-blooded killer.
In true Picoult fashion, the story is told alternately by the key players - Maggie, Father Michael, June Nealon (the victims' wife and mother), Claire Nealon, and inmate Lucius DuFresne. Each narrator offers a different perspective of Shay Bourne. Maggie knows he's no Jesus, but she's committed to helping him anyway (gaining media attention for the ACLU along the way, of course); Father Michael's guilty conscience pushes him into helping Shay, but the more time he spends with the man, the more he's convinced that Shay really is Jesus Christ; June Nealon wants nothing to do with the devil who killed her family, but she's forced to consider his offer to save the life of her daughter; Lucius doesn't know what to think; and Claire's voice offers a startling revelation when it's finally heard at the book's conclusion. While the characters puzzle out the mystery of Shay Bourne, the reader is forced to ask herself some tough questions, the least of which concern the Death Penalty. More disturbing are questions such as these: Can a person erase his past evil acts with enough good ones? How can people who profess to be Christians act in ways that are decidedly unChristlike? If there is a God, how can He allow good people to suffer? Which God/religion is correct? When Jesus comes again, will believers recognize Him or will He be condemned once again?
I've read all of Picoult's novels, and the thing I like most about them is the way she examines hot button issues from all sides. She has the ability to make me empathize with a variety of characters, even those who have committed reprehensible crimes. Her books are entertaining, with interesting characters, lots of racing-the-clock action, a little romance, and a little courtroom drama, but most of all, they make me think. Because of the religious issues Picoult tackles, Change of Heart has stuck with me more than her other novels. I definitely don't agree with a lot of the ideas presented, but the book provides fascinating fodder for discussion and debate.
Do I recommend the book? Absolutely. It's fascinating. Did I like the story? Kinda. There were parts of it that rubbed me the wrong way, and other aspects (like the ending) that I loved. Is it a good read? Definitely. It's got a little bit of everything, including enough suspense to qualify as a page-turner. Is it one of Picoult's best? Not really, but I think it has to be said that Picoult at her very worst is better than most authors at the top of their games. Although I wasn't thrilled with Change of Heart's storyline, I still consider it a solid contribution by this always-intriguing author.
For another view of the book (which somewhat matches my own), check out this post.