Jodi Picoult combines Egyptology and the work of a death doula in her new book, The Book of Two Ways. She even throws in a side helping of quantum physics and multiverses. The story is emotional, wise, and engaging but also sometimes a bit dry and hard to follow.
Main character Dawn McDowell is currently a suburban wife and mom with a unique job as a death doula. Meaning she helps people navigate the last few months (or more) of their lives, and helps families afterwards. But, it’s not what she expected her life would hold when she was a graduate student. And, like many women, Dawn and her husband struggle to stay connected with each other and their teenage daughter.
Twenty years earlier, Dawn studied Egyptology and spent part of each year digging tombs in the desert. She had a world-renowned mentor, and was in a friendly competition with a fellow grad student. Her path forward seemed mapped out. But then life got complicated, and everything changed on the dime of one phone call.
Picoult weaves together a story of both time periods, and the diverging paths Dawn traveled. More importantly, she explores what happens when the paths converge again, because of a spontaneous directional adjustment. Picoult functions as professor, medical explainer, and writer in order to blend these disparate subjects into Dawn’s life. Like reality, it’s sometimes unclear, but in the end I was glad for the journey.
Having just read a book about Cleopatra and ancient Egypt, this was an unexpectedly perfect pairing. What the other book lacked was details about real life in Egypt. And while this book (and Dawn’s fictional research) focused more on death protocols and beliefs, it also invited me into the culture. Honestly, I wish I could pull out just the Egyptology parts and read them again. Because I’m sure I lost some of the copious details among other aspects Dawn’s story.
Mostly I liked Dawn. I can relate to life changes and to regrets, having lived now for over fifty years myself. Her commitment to a specific educational path and future is typical twenty-something behavior. I appreciated her intense focus. And yet, I know that many of us change course. I understand the pull of family obligations like Dawn’s. So all of this was relatable and interesting.
In the course of the book, Dawn sorts through feelings for her parents, her brother, two different romantic interests, and even her daughter. It’s a lot. And rather than moving chronologically, Picoult shifts us back and forth across time. This was a both an advantage and a challenge. It made for some twists, which prove the author’s storytelling chops. Still, the constant shifting sands frustrated me, especially at the end.
All in all, this is a solid story of a likable character. I appreciated the learning opportunities, and Picoult’s willingness to embrace the facets of death and grief. I’d recommend this to book clubs for its many possible discussion topics.
Many thanks to NetGalley, Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine, and the author for the opportunity to read a free digital ARC in exchange for this honest review. Publication date is 22 Sept 2020.