Book of Two Ways
by Picoult, Jodi

Experiencing memories of a man other than her husband while surviving a plane crash, an end-of-life doula on the brink of a fateful decision envisions two disparate paths that find her staying with her family or reconnecting with the past.

Jodi Picoult is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of twenty-four novels, including A Spark of Light, Small Great Things, Leaving Time, The Storyteller, Lone Wolf, Sing You Home, House Rules, Handle with Care, Change of Heart, Nineteen Minutes, and My Sister’s Keeper. She is also the author, with daughter Samantha van Leer, of two young adult novels, Between the Lines and Off the Page. Picoult lives in New Hampshire.

Fifteen years after her mother's death led Dawn Edelstein to veer away from the career she was pursuing as an Egyptologist, she's forced to face the past she left behind. Mostly happily married to Brian, a theoretical physicist who ponders the existence of parallel lives, and the mother of self-conscious teen Meret, Dawn has been working as a death doula to help dying clients make the transition as smoothly as possible. But then she suddenly finds herself forced to confront her still powerful feelings for her first love, Wyatt Armstrong, a dashing English Egyptologist who went from being her rival to her lover during an excavation. Dawn's what-if crisis prompts her to a soul-searching journey halfway across the world to discover whether the career and the man she left behind are truly her past. As she did in the superior A Spark of Light (2018), Picoult plays with the novel's narrative structure in a way that risks leaving readers feeling perplexed or even tricked. Nonetheless, they will find heady themes to consider.HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: The best-selling Picoult's fans will be more than ready for this puzzle of a novel. Copyright 2020 Booklist Reviews.

An Egyptologist-turned–hospice worker contemplates the mysteries of fate, mortality, and love. Picoult's obsession here is the power of choices and what can happen when they are made under pressure. Dawn, a graduate student in Egyptology, is abruptly called back to Boston from a dig in Egypt by a family emergency. Her mother, who raised her and her brother, Kieran, alone, is in hospice, dying. This death and other circumstances conspire to derail Dawn's cherished career—now she must raise Kieran, who is only 13. Security is offered by Brian, a physicist at Harvard, whom she marries after discovering she's pregnant. For 15 years, she curates a different life than the one she had planned. She's now a "death doula," a concierge hospice worker contracted by the moribund to help wind up loose ends. For Dawn's client Win, winding up involves getting in touch with a lost love, abandoned for another life. Win's situation evokes in Dawn renewed longing for her own lost love, Wyatt, an English earl she left behind at the dig. When fault lines emerge in her marriage and tee nage daughter Meret is being extra surly, might-have-beens beckon. The nonlinear narrative ricochets between Dawn's Boston life and her sojourns—past and present—in Egypt. The chronology can be confusing—and, in the case of the prologue, deliberately misleading, it seems. There are no datelines or other guideposts except for periodic headings like "Water/Boston" and "Land/Egypt." Water and Land reference the "Two Ways," alternate routes to the afterlife in Egyptian mythology. Whether on death and dying, archaeology, or quantum physics, Picoult's erudition overload far exceeds the interests of verisimilitude or theme. Do lectures on multiverses bring us any closer to parsing Dawn's epiphanous epigram—"We don't make decisions. Our decisions make us"? This much is clear: The characters' professions are far better defined than their motivations. A midlife crisis story stifled by enough material for several TED talks. Copyright Kirkus 2020 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.


My calendar is full of dead people. 

When my phone alarm chimes, I fish it out from the pocket of my cargo pants. I’ve forgotten, with the time change, to turn off the reminder. I’m still groggy with sleep, but I open the date and read the names: Iris Vale. Eun Ae Kim. Alan Rosenfeldt. Marlon Jensen. 

I close my eyes, and do what I do every day at this moment: I remember them. 

Iris, who had died tiny and birdlike, had once driven a getaway car for a man she loved who’d robbed a bank. Eun Ae, who had been a doctor in Korea, but couldn’t practice in the United States. Alan had proudly showed me the urn he bought for his cremated remains and then joked, I haven’t tried it on yet. Marlon had changed out all the toilets in his house and put in new flooring and cleaned the gutters; he bought graduation gifts for his two children and hid them away. He took his twelve-year-old daughter to a hotel ballroom and waltzed with her while I filmed it on his phone, so that the day she got married there would be video of her dancing with her father. 

At one point, they were my clients. Now, they’re my stories to keep. 

Everyone in my row is asleep. I slip my phone back into my pocket and carefully crawl over the woman to my right without disturbing her—air traveler’s yoga—to make my way to the bathroom in the rear of the plane. There I blow my nose and look in the mirror. I’m at the age where that’s a surprise, where I still think I’m going to see a younger woman rather than the one who blinks back at me. Lines fan from the corners of my eyes, like the creases of a familiar map. If I untangle the braid that lies over my left shoulder, these terrible fluorescent lights would pick up those first gray strands in my hair. I’m wearing baggy pants with an elastic waist, like every other sensible nearly-forty woman who knows she’s going to be on a plane for a long-haul flight. I grab a handful of tissues and open the door, intent on heading back to my seat, but the little galley area is packed with flight attendants. They are knotted together like a frown. 

They stop talking when I appear. “Ma’am,” one of them says, “could you please take your seat?” 

It strikes me that their job isn’t really very different from mine. If you’re on a plane, you’re not where you started, and you’re not where you’re going. You’re caught in between. A flight attendant is the guide who helps you navigate that passage smoothly. As a death doula, I do the same thing, but the journey is from life to death, and at the end, you don’t disembark with two hundred other travelers. You go alone. 

I climb back over the sleeping woman in the aisle seat and buckle my seatbelt just as the overhead lights blaze and the cabin comes alive. 

“Ladies and gentlemen,” a voice announces, “we have just been informed by the captain that we’re going to have a planned emergency. Please listen to the flight attendants and follow their directions.” 

I am frozen. Planned emergency. The oxymoron sticks in my mind. 

There is a quick rush of sound—shock rolls through the cabin—but no screams, no loud cries. Even the baby behind me, who shrieked for the first two hours of the flight, is silent. “We’re crashing,” the woman on the aisle whispers. “Oh my God, we’re crashing.”

She must be wrong; there hasn’t even been turbulence. Everything has been normal. But then the flight attendants station themselves in the aisles, performing a strange, staccato ballet of safety movements as instructions are read over the speakers. Fasten your seatbelts. When you hear the word brace, assume the brace position. After the plane comes to a complete stop you’ll hear Release your seatbelts. Get out. Leave everything behind.

Leave everything behind. 

For someone who makes a living through death, I haven’t given a lot of thought to my own. 

I have heard that when you are about to die, your life flashes before your eyes. 

But I do not picture my husband, Brian, his sweater streaked with inevitable chalk dust from the old-school blackboards in his physics lab. Or Meret, as a little girl, asking me to check for monsters under the bed. I do not envision my mother, not like she was at the end or before that, when Kieran and I were young. 

Instead, I see him. 

As clearly as if it were yesterday, I imagine Wyatt in the middle of the Egyptian desert, the sun beating down on his hat, his neck ringed with dirt from the constant wind, his teeth a flash of lightning. A man who hasn’t been part of my life for fifteen years. A place I left behind. 

A dissertation I never finished. 

Ancient Egyptians believed that to get to the afterlife, they had to be deemed innocent in the Judgment Hall. Their hearts were weighed against the feather of Ma’at, of truth. 

I am not so sure my heart will pass. 

The woman to my right is softly praying in Spanish. I fumble for my phone, thinking to turn it on, to send a message, even though I know there is no signal, but I can’t seem to open the button on my pants pocket. A hand catches mine and squeezes.

I look down at our fists, squeezed so tight a secret couldn’t slip between our palms.

Brace, the flight attendants yell. Brace! 

As we fall out of the sky, I wonder who will remember me.

Much later I would learn that when a plane crashes and the emergency personnel show up, the flight attendants tell them how many souls were on board. Souls, not people. As if they know our bodies are only passing through for a little while. 

I would learn that one of the fuel filters became clogged midflight. That the second filter-clogging light came on in the cockpit forty-five minutes out, and in spite of what the pilots tried, they could not clear it, and they realized they’d have to do a land evacuation. I would learn that the plane came in short of Raleigh-Durham, sticking down in the football field of a private school. As it hit the bleachers with a wing, the plane tipped, rolled, broke into pieces. 

Much later I would learn of the family with the baby behind me, whose row of three seats separated from the floor and was thrown free from the aircraft, killing them instantaneously. I would hear about the six others who had been crushed as the metal buckled; the flight attendant who never came out of her coma. I would read the names of the passengers in the last ten rows who hadn’t gotten out of the broken fuselage before it erupted in flame. 

I would learn that I was one of thirty-six people who walked away from the crash. 

When I step out of the examination room of the hospital we’ve been taken to, I’m dazed. A woman in a uniform is in the hallway, talking to a man with a bandaged arm. She is part of an emergency response team from the airline that has overseen medical checks by physicians, given us clean clothes and food, and flown in frantic family members. 

“Ms. Edelstein?” she says, and I blink, until I realize she is talking to me. 

A million years ago, I had been Dawn McDowell. I’d published under that name. But my passport and license read Edelstein. Like Brian’s. 

In her hand she has a checklist of crash survivors. 

She puts a tick next to my name. “Have you been seen by a doctor?” 

“Not yet.” I glance back at the examination room. 

“Okay. I’m sure you have some questions . . . ?” 

That’s an understatement. 

Why am I alive, when others aren’t?

Why did I book this particular flight?

What if I’d been detained checking in, and had missed it?

What if I’d made any of a thousand other choices that would have led me far away from this crash?

At that, I think of Brian, and his theory of the multiverse. Somewhere, in a parallel timeline, there is another me at my own funeral.

At the same time, I think—again, always—of Wyatt.

I have to get out of here.

I don’t realize I have said this out loud until the airline representative responds.

“Once we get the doctor’s paperwork, you’re clear to leave. Is someone coming for you, or do you need us to make travel arrangements?”

We, the lucky ones, have been told we can have a plane ticket anywhere we need to go—to our destination, back to where the flight originated, even somewhere else, if necessary. I have already called my husband. Brian offered to come get me, but I told him not to. I didn’t say why.

I clear my throat. “I have to book a flight,” I say.

“Absolutely.” The woman nods. “Where do you need to go?”

Boston, I think. Home. But there’s something about the way she phrases the question: need, instead of want; and another destination rises like steam in my mind.

I open my mouth, and I answer.

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