by Jodi Picoult; New York, Atria Books, 2006, 400 pages, $26
Ms. Kaplan is a doctoral fellow at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.
An awful lot goes on in this 13th novel by best-selling author Jodi Picoult. The Tenth Circle has a little something for everyone: date rape, suicide, Dante, comic book superheroes, homicide, promiscuous sexual games by 14-year-olds, infidelity by mothers, assault by fathers, and dead childhood friends. It is a story of transmutations: from adolescent to adult, from man to superhero, and from self-deceit to self awareness. As if that's not enough, Picoult does all she can to metaphorically tie these story elements together, but the result is more like a bad puppet show where you can see the strings as well as the hands of the puppeteer.
Daniel Stone—a father and a cartoonist by trade—grew up as an outcast, the sole white child in an Eskimo village to which he has never returned. The book actually includes comic book pages at the end of each chapter, which demonstrate Daniel's working out of his inner demons, and it reads like a comic strip as the action moves quickly back and forth through episodic bits of dialogue connecting the myriad strands of the plot.
Laura, Daniel's wife, is a college professor who specializes in Dante, from which comes the book's title and overarching themes of hell and damnation. She is having an affair with one of her students. Their only child is Trixie, 14 years old and struggling with adolescent tribulations such as sexuality, separation from her parents, and peer pressure. Some of Picoult's best insights are in Trixie's descriptions of growing up, when "you didn't get to be pretty or smart or popular just because you wanted it. You didn't control your own destiny; you were too busy trying to fit in." It is out of the nexus of relationships within this closed family system—there is no mention of friends, extended family, even a neighbor—that the plot emerges.
The events that make the solutions to the Stone family's problems seem to spring more out of fantasy than fictional storytelling. A detective who lost his daughter to drugs now shares his life with a potbellied pig. During a cross-country running away, Trixie flees from Bethel, Maine, to Bethel, Alaska, by airplane, with her parents following in close pursuit. Laura confesses her infidelity, and Daniel and Trixie get angry, but not that angry. Trixie attempts suicide, but there is no real adolescent attitude and no therapy or aftercare at all.
Yet everything works out in the end, which perhaps suggests that families functioned better before we understood family systems, tried to nose into why kids cut themselves, and provided psychiatric support after both a rape and a suicide attempt. Without any psychiatric interventions, the Stone family is reunited, the homicide is solved, and everyone is closer than ever before. In a final note from the author, we learn that letters embedded in the comic book drawings spell out a quotation that expresses the theme of the book when they are put together.