Note: this critique is of the book My Sister’s Keeper, although I refer to the movie. The movie mostly follows the book until the final court scene, whereupon it goes off in two different directions. Discussion on both book and movie are welcome. Spoilers beware. (IMHO, it’s not worth reading, anyway.)
Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper follows the life of the Fitzgerald family. Older sister Kate (played in the movie by Sofia Vassilieva from TV’s Medium) is chronically ill, suffering from leukemia-related illnesses since she was a young child. Her parents, Sara (Cameron Diaz) and Brian, concieved younger sister Anna (Abigail Breslin) as a genetically-engineered baby to be the perfect match for Kate as a blood and bone-marrow donor. For thirteen years. Anna has gone along with it, but when her parents ask for a kidney, she gets herself a lawyer and sues for medical emancipation; the right over her own body.
Now, I’m from Western Australia, where we have laws against both genetically-engineered babies and live transplants, so I was predisposed against the so-called ethics that Picoult raised in the books. To me, bringing a child into the world knowing they will have a chronically ill older sibling and that they were conceived for spare parts seems abhorrent, if understandable from a desperate parent’s perspective. And the risks that go along with being a live donor? The reason we don’t have it (though other Australian states do). I’m certainly interested in what people outside WA think.
Anyway, when Anna sues for emancipation, Sara hits the roof, calling Anna a selfish bitch and so on. Even when the court forbids Sara from speaking to Anna about to trial, she still tries and convinces Anna to save her sister’s life. Now, I’d hazard a guess that Picoult’s intention was to portray Sara as so desperate to use one daughter’s life to save the other that she convinces herself she’ll get two healthy daughters out of it – ignoring any risks to Anna’s health, in both short- and long-term, which may not even benefit Kate – but for me, she just came across as a woman who loves Kate first and foremost and sees Anna as a spare-parts factory. She sees nothing wrong with holding her toddler daughter down to get bone marrow drawn while her daughter kicks and screams; Anna’s constant skipping of school because of recovering from one procedure or another is treated as collateral damage to Kate’s well-being.
And the thing is, like many of Picoult’s novels, MSK often hits some sadly realistic notes. The Fitzgerald family haven’t been living for the last fifteen years so much as stuck on survival mode, ricocheting from one health crisis to another. The family is broke from constantly having to pay for medical treatments and procedures. Kate’s been miserable for as long as she can remember. Older son Jesse is in trouble at school and has taken to petty arson out of neglect. Anna can’t go to camp and pursue her own interests in case Kate gets sick and needs her sister’s blood. I have no idea what it would be like to be living with someone chronically ill, but Picoult’s account feels jarringly realistic; every bit of money and happiness the family had has gone into a black hole of Kate’s illness.
And I found it incredibly unrealistic that the ethics board of a major suburban hospital thought nothing wrong with a thirteen-year-old giving a kidney. The compromised life at thirteen? I only know no (respectable) Australian surgeon would OK those circumstances, but again, I am interested in what people from other countries have to say.
But what keeps coming back to me is Sara’s determination to have Anna donate a kidney. She knows the risks, she just doesn’t seem to care. I know it must suck to be in that position and I hope I never will be in a position to need one child to give life to the other and hope like hell it doesn’t kill them both, but Sara constantly comes across as caring far more about Kate then Anna.
In the final court scene, it’s revealed that Kate was tired of living this half-life and wanted to die, and didn’t want Anna’s health to be compromised along with it. She engineered for Anna to sue for emancipation, because she didn’t want to admit to their mum that she wanted to give up. Whatever Picoult intended, my response was ‘so, now BOTH girls are too scared to tell her what they want?’
And this is where the book and film diverge. In the film, Kate dies, and Anna, Jesse, Sara and Brian go on as best they can. I thought that was the more realistic of the two. In the book, on the way home from the court decision that says she doesn’t have to give a kidney, Anna and her lawyer are in a car crash that results in Anna’s death, and guess what? Kate gets the kidney!!! Yay! I don’t know what Picoult meant to say, but my interpretation was ‘that’s what you get for banking one daughter’s health against the other, thinking they will both be OK, you selfish woman’.
I could never feel for Sara, and I think that’s where Picoult went wrong. Diaz brings something more human and desperate to Sara, but the book’s Sara just comes across as as a single-minded person who doesn’t give a crap who’s she’s hurting so long as she gets her (idealistic) way.
I think Picoult has a lot of talent as a writer (Nineteen Minutes, House Rules). But I also think she often takes on an emotive issue and then gets lost in exploring them and reduces her original idea to something far less great than it could have been. That feels like the case here with My Sister’s Keeper.