While I was excited to read Jodi Picoult’s newest book, The Book of Two Ways, it turned out to be less enjoyable than I had hoped. Although it is a masterful piece of writing, for me, the death-centric subject hit a little too close to home during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact found myself avoiding the book and even starting another book at the same time. (Gasp!! I do not usually read multiple books at once.)
Death permeates nearly every page of The Book of Two Ways, and though this may be cathartic for some, it had the opposite effect on me. The novel centers around Dawn Edelstein, a death doula (a job described as like a birth doula, but “at the other end of the life spectrum”), and the divergent paths that her life could have taken. Readers learn that years in the past, she had been a doctoral candidate in the Yale Egyptology program, but she did not complete her degree. The story line alternates between past and present, and in the present-day, she finds herself caught in what could have been. Her dissertation was going to be on The Book of Two Ways, an ancient Egyptian text that is “the first known map of the afterlife.” As a result, there is no escaping the endless theme of death in either of the two storylines. However, what I think finally put me over the edge was a guided death meditation that Dawn completed with one of her clients she has as a death doula. Described in excruciating detail over multiple pages, readers contemplate what it feels like to die alongside the characters. Perhaps my futile desire to avoid this death-talk was all too human (Dawn aptly points out during the meditation that “not a single sentient being – no matter how spiritually evolved, or powerful, or wealthy, or motivated – has escaped death”), but it is the truth, nonetheless. The writing was excellent and the theme important, but I just was not in the headspace to appreciate it.
On the other hand, however, I did enjoy the book’s rich details that engross readers in its world. For one thing, reading The Book of Two Ways whet my appetite to learn more about Egyptology, and though some of the specifics in the book are fictional, many of the facts are real. Additionally, Dawn’s husband, Brian, is a physicist, and this leads to crash-course summaries of the multiverse, electron spin, and Schrödinger’s cat, all of which become instrumental to the plot.
Though I did not personally enjoy reading The Book of Two Ways, it is still a skilled piece of writing that I probably would have appreciated more in non-pandemic times. Indeed, if the quality of a book is measured by the amount of time that it haunts readers’ minds after it has been completed, I was still thinking about The Book of Two Ways for days after I had finished it.