Thursday, May 21, 2009

Salem Falls

Salem Falls by Jodi Picoult

A label can be a powerful thing. A small tag that says "PRADA" inside a handbag suddenly makes it very different from the bag you bought on the clearance rack at JCPenney. I remember how important labels were to me as an adolescent. As much as you wanted to wear the jeans wtih the correct label, you poured even more energy in to making sure that you were not labeled in the wrong way among your peers. Why? Because labels are what communicate your value to others.

Picoult explores the idea of labels in Salem Falls. In this novel, a small community is turned upside down when a man with a label decides to settle there. Suddenly, the "crazy" woman at the diner feels love for the first time in over a decade. The "popular" daughter of the man who basically owns the town discovers a new challenge for her and her friends, a self-proclaimed coven of teenage "witches." We, the reader, can only act as voyeurs as these characters try to shake themselves loose of the labels they have been given or, in some cases, to rebel against them so completely that there are bound to be casualties.

Although Idid not purposefully choose to read Salem Falls directly after finishing The Tenth Circle, in retrospect I am glad I did. Both novels deal directly with the alleged rape of a teenage girl and the ordeal that comes along as baggage, but presented them in very different ways. In the case of this novel, the accused is Jack St. Bride, a man who has been down this road before. A former school teacher and soccer coach who was wrongly accused of the sexaul assault of one of his students, Jack finds himself in Salem Falls trying to free himself of his past. He stumbles across Addie Peabody, a diner owner who is reluctant to let go of hers. Before long, Jack is noticed in Salem Falls and his label of "sexual predator" comes back to haunt him and a group of teenage girls (and their fathers!) put him in their crosshairs.

Just as The Tenth Circle wove in elements of The Inferno, Salem Falls presents a modern day witch hunt a la The Crucible. Once Jack's past is public knowledge, he becomes persecuted by the town and the prey of these girls. Just as Abigail Williams and her group of cronies fire accusations of poppet making, spell casting, and spectral projection on the men and women of their town in order to get revenge on them, Gillian Duncan and her clique use their involvement in Wicca as a weapon to get what they want, or whom they want. The drawback to using this literary model is that the reader knows exactly what direction Picoult is heading in, leaving little room for twists and turns along the way.

Some of the scenes of sexuality were a bit...ummm....detailed for my taste, but they were hardly as steamy as your typical dime romance novel. Balancing out these scenes are the chapters of courtroom drama where Jack must once again fight for his innocence and his reputation. This novel kept me turning the pages even faster than The Tenth Circle and I strangely enjoyed the unexpected reversal of finding yourself cheering for the alleged rapist. And the carrot dangling at the end of this string is a final page with a stunning twist that really, you probably knew all along. Picoult makes some bold choices in this one. It makes for a page turner to be sure, but it leaves you wondering how you would really feel if you didn't have all the inside information.

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