Book Review – Vanishing Acts by Jodi Picoult

Released in November of 2005, Vanishing Acts follows the story of Delia Hopkins. Or is it Bethany Matthews? Delia’s world is turned upside down when her father is arrested in their New Hampshire home and extradited to Arizona where he faces charges for kidnapping her when she was four years old. Delia must determine who she really is, who she wants to be, how to come to terms with a mother she believed was dead, and how to cope with memories she never knew she had.

Vanishing Acts is written in Jodi Picoult’s classic style. Told from the perspectives of a handful of characters including Delia, her father, her fiancé, and their childhood friend, the different fonts help the reader to distinguish one voice from another.  Picoult’s novels are always well researched and extremely detailed. She incorporates the jargon for the profession of each of her characters (even including a recipe for methamphetamine courtesy of Delia’s father, a chemist before taking his daughter). And it wouldn’t be a true Jodi Picoult novel without a riveting trial whose verdict coincides with the novel’s climax.

Vanishing Acts is (obviously) not the first Jodi Picoult novel I’ve read. In fact, it’s the eighth. The first time you read one of her novels, the trial cannot be beat, and the second novel of hers that you read also has a wonderfully satisfying court case that doesn’t disappoint. But after a while, they can become repetitive, especially the criminal cases. Her novels where the trials feature civil or family court cases or that have no trials whatsoever are consistently among my favorites (My Sister’s Keeper, Keeping Faith, and Harvesting the Heart for example).

There are only so many exciting ways for the DNA evidence to be presented and explained, both in life and on the page. But it must be done whenever it’s used in trial (she gets points for staying true to life in this case, but it makes it harder to get through the novels when you dread the moment you know it will be described, yet again). Because of the repetitive nature of these courtroom dramas, I have to wait a while between reading her novels. I was a little unsure picking up Vanishing Acts, knowing that the featured trial would be another criminal case, but was pleasantly surprised.

There wasn’t the usual buildup to the case for the first half of the novel with the trial taking up the entire second half of the book. Instead Andrew Hopkins is arrested at the end of the first section, told from Delia’s perspective. There are some hearings and motions, a little preparation for the main trial woven through the rest of the narratives but the trial itself is condensed and told with only one real interruption for a change of day. This keeps the reader’s attention fixed and engaged very agreeably. Most of the novel focuses on what happens during the waiting period before the trial. Andrew details what happens in the prison, Eric (Delia’s fiancé) as the lawyer preparing, Delia as confused daughter and witness, and Fitz as childhood friend to all of the above.

Though each of the characters get to tell their own story, their voices aren’t as distinct from one another as the reader would hope (and Picoult has done better with this in other novels, but never has mastered it as completely as someone like Barbara Kingsolver in The Poisonwood Bible). Andrew’s voice is easily the most recognizable as he frequently addresses himself to a “you” that is clearly meant to be Delia. But none of the others’ perspectives have any distinguishing ways of speaking or signature turns of phrase that mark an individual’s voice.

Over all, Vanishing Acts was compelling in a way that makes me less hesitant than before to pick up the next of her novels sitting on my To Read bookcase.

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