‘Salem Falls’ – Jodi Picoult

I really wanted to like Jodi Picoult’s Salem Falls. I’ve enjoyed other novels of hers – particularly Nineteen Minutes – and the history buff in me is a sucker for anything which promises persecution based on ignorance and fear and has Salem in the title. But Picoult fails royally with Salem Falls, primarily because of her plot device where not once but twice that girls who cry rape are, well, crying rape.

Note: Like most of Picoult’s work, the book flits back and forth between present day and events as far back as twenty years ago, detailing events whose consequences culminate in present day, with the final detail being revealed on the last page. It’s kind of like the literary equivalent of an episode of Cold Case. For the sake of clarity, I’ve summarised the plot chronologically, not how it’s revealed in the book.

So we have Jack St. Bride, a popular young teacher whom several female students have crushes on. Honourable man that he is, he doesn’t even register these crushes; they’re just impressionable young minds that he wants to fill with knowledge. One of the students, Catherine, writes her fantasies about him in her diary, and when her ultra-conservative preacher father finds it, along with the birth control pills she was using in her sexual relationship with her boyfriend, he assumes the worst and Catherine’s testimony is disregarded. Jack does an eight-month stint in jail for sexually assaulting a female. Catherine recants at the end of the book, y’know, after he’s done jail time and has a record as a sexual offender.

His time done, he makes his way to the little town of Salem Falls, New Hampshire. He starts up a relationship with (the very much adult) Addie Peabody, but of course it doesn’t take long for him to attract the attention of other members of the female population, particularly teenage girls. Specifically Gillian, daughter of the town’s richest man. Gillian’s a Wiccan, see, except she ignores the advice of her fellow-Wiccans (ie, her doppelganger friends) that magic should be used for good, and instead uses it to get back at the people who laugh at her and make Jack fall in love with her. It doesn’t take long for Gillian to accuse Jack of rape, except what actually happened is that Gillian and her friends were practicing spells, high as kites, when Jack stumbles upon them, drunk. Gillian comes onto him, and when Jack turns her down flat, Gillian cries rape.

So here we have a man who not once, but twice has been the victim of infatuated teenage girls and paid the price for their misplaced devotion – first through a series of misunderstandings with Catherine, then with a manipulative Gillian who cried rape when she was turned down. I’m pretty sure Picoult isn’t actually saying, hey, all rape allegations are just screwed-up teenage girls crying rape, but the book definitely perpetuates that myth.

(Also, has anyone read the book who’s also familiar with the US legal system? Because if I apply Picoult’s logic to the Australian legal system, the state would be lucky to get a trial, let alone a conviction, on the evidence they had in both cases. Come to think of it, My Sister’s Keeper kind of fails there, too.)

Wait, it gets even classier. In the final scene of the book, it turns out that Gillian is in a seemingly consensual sexual relationship with her father. I say ‘seemingly consensual’ because it’s hard to gauge as the whole scene takes less than a page; she goes into his room and there’s references made to ‘an old, old dance’ and ‘sealing the deal once more’. It’s left up to the reader to decide how consensual it is. Has Gillian been so damaged that she cried rape with Jack as a cry for help? Is she just an out-and-out evil, manipulative tramp? Somewhere in between? We don’t know, because Picoult thinks it’s a good idea to let the reader decide her motives. Uh, no. Sometimes, it’s a good plot device – but not when we’re talking about crying rape and father-daughter incestuous relationships.

The shame of it is that Salem Falls could have been a thought-provoking read about people’s tendency to judge out of fear and ignorance. Girl cries rape and naturally the new guy in town with the criminal record had to have done it, because men who are devoted fathers and pillars of the community don’t commit crimes, let alone such heinous ones. Or maybe it could have looked at the idea that instead of Jack being the victim of Catherine and Gillian’s actions, he was indirectly the victim of their fathers’ unhealthy attitudes towards their daughters, which in turn screwed with their way of interacting with men. Instead, Picoult not only relies on a seriously bad trope, but ends it with an even worse one that should never be treated lightly, let alone as a throwaway ‘Ohmygod! It was him all along!’ moment.


  1. says

    Can one actually have a consensual affair with one’s parent? The power dynamics of that relationship don’t really change – the parent always has the advantage of the child.

    The story sounds like a sack of shit, in any case.

  2. scarlett says

    @Gategrrl:MSK was the first Picoult novel I read, and I didn’t know if she was posing a hypothetical about a world where it’s OK to genetically engineer human beings to be ‘spare parts manufacturers’ or if she was just a sloppy writer who ignored any legal or ethical reality that got in between her and her story. Having read another four of her books, I’m inclined to go with the later.

    @JK: While I hadn’t thought about that, yeah, I don’t think it’s possible – from the get-go, the parent has the authority, the control. What pissed me off to no end was how randomly it was thrown it and how little (ie, non-existant) explaination was given into how that would have fucked with Gillian. Of the five books of hers I’ve read, Picoult use that tactic in all of them to some extent – towards the end, or even on the final page, it turns out that someone else is at least partially responsible – but never so god-awful tasteless as ‘oh, yeah, turns out the dad was doing the daughter, end of story’.

  3. Genevieve says

    I really liked this when I read it back in high school…if I remember correctly, Addie had also been raped (gang-raped) when she was younger, and the fathers of some of the teenage characters were the culprits…but I remember Picoult saying she included that plotline so that it wouldn’t sound like she was saying that it was worse to be accused of rape than to be raped. Which is sort of a weird thing for an author to feel like she needs to do.

  4. says

    I agree that there can almost never be a consensual parent/child relationship (I guess maybe if they met as adults and the parents hadn’t raised the child it might be possible) but there are plenty of people who do think it can be consensual (see: Mackenzie Phillips revealing her “affair” with her father) and Jodi Picoult could certainly have been intending to present the situation as ambiguous.

  5. scarlett says

    I agree that she probably *intended* to be ambiguous but it comes across as icky and tasteless.

    Age wise, they don’t go into when the sexual relationship started, although she’s highschool age in the book’s present day and I got the impression from the ‘old, old dance’ bit that it had been going on for a while. There’s a point they make several times about her need psyciatric(sp?) treatment after she goes off the rails when her mum died at, from memory, age 9. So maybe that’s when it started and that’s why she went off the raisl? I dunno, I’m just guessing ‘cos Picoult thought it was *clever* to be ambiguous about something like that.

  6. sbg says

    I agree that there can almost never be a consensual parent/child relationship (I guess maybe if they met as adults and the parents hadn’t raised the child it might be possible) but there are plenty of people who do think it can be consensual

    I’ve seen this argument too, for all types of relationships, incestuous especially. I confess I just can’t see how it could be called consensual when the situation is obviously so skewed and out of whack – be it mental illness, control, drugs. Whatever has led to that situation has to be so extreme, I’d wager that by the time it hits the “consensual” stage it’s really those underlying issues exacerbated and confused into something someone can mentally survive with.

  7. Scarlett says

    @Genevieve: I never got the feeling it sounded like she was saying it was worse to be accused of rape than to BE raped, rather, that it was really shitty to be falsely accused when the accuser knew damn well they hadn’t done it.

    I was thinking about the storyline of Addie’s rape today, and I really didn’t see the point to it other than to first have her question Jack then have her realise that he’s innocent and that she loves him. I did like the part where she told one of her rapists that she didn’t forgive him, though; I think if they’d had some trite about her being over it, or her getting her daughter out of it, I would have hurled the book out of the nearest window.

  8. says

    WOW this sounds bad. I also despise the whole “Twisted Wiccan” thing (lazy) authors use to basically say, “Hey, I’m not prejudiced against non-Christians! But still, look how evil she is!”

    I never read MSK, but I was really disappointed that in the movie the whole Abigail-Breslin-wants-human-rights thing wasn’t carried through to the end because big sister couldn’t tell everybody herself that she was ready to die. Also, the brother seemed totally freakin’ useless as a character except for the “big reveal” that the younger sister wasn’t being “selfish” keeping all those good, juicy, non-mutated organs to herself.

  9. Scarlett says

    I’ll given them credit for one thing – Christianity comes off quite badly too, in the form of Katherine’s superconservative, narrow-minded dad. But I’m always left with the feeling in material like this that they’re saying the Christian guy is just an extreme, whereas the twisted Wiccan is actually a fair representation.

    The brother’s role in the book is more significant – they look more at how much it affected the family to focus everything on one chronically ill child for all those years. They also go more into the fact that Kate felt she couldn’t say anything because Sara – the mum – was so domineering and determined to do anything to save her that she wouldn’t listen. Still, way to go, getting your kid sister to do your dirty work for you. But I think the mum actually came across as MORE bitchy in the book, all ‘to hell with Anna’s health, I want them organs harvasted’. I did a bit of reading about it, and the whole premise is based on legal and ethical bullshit. That’s why I wonder if Picoult was posing a hypothetical when this whole concept of saviour babies was brand-new, or if she was just being a sloppy writer.

  10. says


    So, Nijireiki, in the movie, the youngest sister, Abigail, didn’t die herself? What caused me so much IRE about that book was how at the end, even after Abigail won her lawsuit, big sister was able to get her organs anyway, because Abigail was in an accident. It was the most infuriating, self-serving, easy-way-out chicken crap ending I’ve ever read that minimized a dilemmna the author herself brought up. It was cheesy and despicable. If an author is going to write about a difficult subject like that (tailoring a child to serve another sibling), then don’t wimp out on it.

    The most comtemptible person in that book turned out to be the mother, of course.

  11. Scarlett says

    Gategrrl, the youngest sister’s name was Anna, played by Abigail Breslin. Big sister is Kate, mum is Sara. And yeah, I preferred the movie ending to the book ending. Relatively speaking, that is. Neither was very good.

    I’m thinking of writing about MSK now. Sara’s pretty much despicable to the point of being unredeemable. I get that Picoult was trying to portray her as being a mum who was so determined to save her child that she lost track of the bigger picture, but instead she comes across as being pathologically unreasonable and favoring one child over the other to a point of massive mental instability. Which could have been a fascinating read in itself, but Picoult seems to have a knack of taking perfectly good concepts and ruining them with sloppy writing.

  12. Genevieve says

    Scarlett–Yeah, I got that too, and felt sympathetic towards Jack, I just found it interesting how in the interviews towards the back of the book she mentioned that those were her reasons for including the Addie-as-rape victim storyline.
    And I did like that she didn’t forgive the men, even though she did love her daughter.

    On the Gillian-and-her-dad thing: I think one of the more interesting things is when she gave him drugs and purposefully made him sick, thereby having to skip the school dance to take care of him. I don’t know if this was meant to show how disturbed she was and how much she hated him or how much he had put her into the role of his caretaker.

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