My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Goodreads: Sage Singer befriends an old man who's particularly beloved in her community. Josef Weber is everyone's favorite retired teacher and Little League coach. They strike up a friendship at the bakery where Sage works. One day he asks Sage for a favor: to kill him. Shocked, Sage refuses…and then he confesses his darkest secret - he deserves to die, because he was a Nazi SS guard. Complicating the matter? Sage's grandmother is a Holocaust survivor.
What do you do when evil lives next door? Can someone who's committed a truly heinous act ever atone for it with subsequent good behavior? Should you offer forgiveness to someone if you aren't the party who was wronged? And most of all - if Sage even considers his request - is it murder, or justice?
My thoughts: There are so many stories going on in this book, I don't know how Picoult kept the thread going but she did. It is only confusing if the reader is reading an ARC on an electronic device as the differentiation is difficult to ascertain.
The central part of the story is about Sage, a 25 year old recluse with a few (probable) minor scars on her face but deep scars on her emotional being. She carries the guilt and weight of her mistakes and, unknowingly, the weight of her ancestry. In a grief group she meets a very old man who has been a pillar of society. He is German and he befriends Sage and she him. He confides in her that he wants her help to die. He feels like he has suffered from his conscience and needs to be released. Nothing seems to kill him. Sage is horrified by his request so he adds some unsavory detail. He worked as an SS officer during WWII. Worse, he was in Auschwitz, the death camp. Sage contacts a government agency to figure out what to do. As an added part to the story, Sage is having an affair with a married man who is one she can never have. Because deep down she believes she is not worthy.
Eventually the reader discovers that Sage's grandmother is an Auschwitz survivor. She doesn't want to share her story. She wants it to die with her. Upon prodding, she does share and it is grueling and inhumane. Then there is a caveat that the reader might see coming. She has crossed paths with a particularly brutal SS officer.
The old man, in an effort to convince Sage he needs help to die, paints himself as a brutal SS officer. As you might guess, he admits to being one from Auschwitz that Minka knew of. Although this would seem to be a central part of the story, it really isn't. Sage battles with forgiveness for herself and for the man she knows as a monster according to his stories and her grandmother's. It is his lack of remorse that is compelling to me.
This is where Picoult really shines. The book is threaded throughout with a fairy tale that Minka pens that juxtaposes the experiences of Minka. The fairy tale is compelling to all who hear and read it which saves her from death in Auschwitz for the moment. The story is about two brothers who are both infected with the same condition. They are undead and feast upon the blood and gore of their victims. One has mastered self-control for the most part. The other has not. The question Minka and the others struggle over is good and evil. Can a person only be one?
I am reminded of the first time I saw Schindler's List and was struck by how unheroic Oskar Schindler was. He needed workers and chose to use Jews from a concentration camp. He didn't do it because he wanted to save them, at least not in the beginning. He simply used them and saw them as his society had taught him to see them - subhuman. It was through interaction with them that he grew to care about them. Although the movie ended with Schindler clearly being one of the "good" guys, this story is not as clear. Good people do bad things. Sometimes they do it for a higher purpose and sometimes they are simply misguided.
There are so many parts to this book I would love to divulge but they would probably end up being spoilers. In fact, I know they would. They would lead me to divulge more and more until I gave too much of the story away.
Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that I have a new admiration for Picoult and her ability to 1) use the English language. I loved the words she used although I tired of the word "tome." My issue, not hers. 2) The story is multi-layered yet interconnected. What seemingly doesn't connect, eventually fits completely.
I'd use it for a book group.