[Author’s Note: I know I announced that I wouldn’t be writing any more blogs this month. I apologize, but I guess I missed that announcement. So sue me….]
Do you know what a coup du théâtre is? Well, just in case your French is as rusty as mine, it’s a sudden and unexpected turn of events, usually at the end of a play. As, for example, at the end of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” when the eponymous hero, who has been seething with frustration, pulls out a gun and starts firing at the man who has been tormenting him (naturally, he misses).
Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve been to a theater, but the other night I had the equivalent experience reading a novel. First, there was a plot twist I not only didn’t see coming, but was extremely pissed when it jolted me out of what I thought was the story. But after that, once I had recovered, there was something else that I discovered that left me breathless with excitement, something that I never could have imagined. I was left stunned, and had to put the book down. I was rocked by a coup du théâtre simply by sitting at home at my desk.
I had better explain by giving you a little background before telling you about the novel that left me reeling with shock.
After it arrived, I learned that this author had already written a slew of novels, so I knew it would be good, but I was not prepared for how good. When I got into it, it was engrossing and often riveting.
I am now going to do a nasty turn of being a spoiler. I need to summarize the plot, which will ruin the novel for any of you who might wish to read it, but I hope some of you still will. I apologize, but there is no way to tell this tale without your being familiar with story Picoult has crafted.
The COVID pandemic has just hit New York, and you may remember that at the beginning of the outbreak, New York City was in its crosshairs. Many people had already begun to flood the hospitals, which were soon overwhelmed. And the number of deaths was quickly alarming and ventilators were still in short supply. It was suddenly a very scary time with great uncertainty about the virus. But it was already clear, it would not be short-lived.
Unfortunately for Diana, she and her physician boyfriend, Finn, had planned a romantic getaway to the Galápagos just at this time when Diana expected Finn to propose. But he, a resident at New York-Presbyterian, can’t possibly leave now, and, besides, he doesn’t want Diana to remain in New York where COVID is raging. But they’ve saved for four years for this vacation and paid a king’s ransom for their flights and accommodations, so Finn urges Diana to go there on her own. At least she can be safe and enjoy the Galápagos while he helps battle the virus in New York. Diana is reluctant to leave Finn at this time and travel alone, but eventually she agrees, and off she goes.
However, as soon as she arrives in the Galápagos, after laying over for a night in Ecuador, things quickly become complicated. The island, Isabela, where she has booked her hotel has just been closed for two weeks, owing to the virus. As she gets off the water-taxi, Diana sees a group of tourists getting ready to flee for a larger island, Santa Cruz, where they can still get flights out. She is advised to follow them, but she has come all this way, spent all this money, she’ll be damned if she’s going to turn around and go home. And to what? New York where the plague is rampant? No way! She’s going to stay.
Everyone else leaves except for a sullen girl of about 12 or 13, who remains alone, her eyes red. She has obviously been crying, but her manner says to Diana, “leave me alone.”
“El hotel no está lejos, pero no están abiertos,” she is told. The hotel’s not far, but is not open. Diana goes, anyway, but she is told brusquely that the hotel is indeed closed. She has nowhere to stay. She is stuck on an island with little more than a toothbrush.
She wanders around, not knowing what to do. She’s getting hungry. She sees some tortoises reaching for some apples, so she figures they must safe to eat. But as she’s about to take a bite, a man’s voice rings out, “cuidado!” The man approaches; fortunately, he speaks English, but he is not friendly. He tells her those apples are poisonous for humans; even touching them will scald one’s skin; eating theme could be fatal. Diana’s hands are already burning. “Stupid turista.”
Well, you get the picture. Diana has made a big mistake.
Fortunately, an old woman whom Diana had seen leaving the hotel takes pity on her and beckons her to follow. She has a spare (and bare) room in her basement. Diana can stay there during the night. Eventually, she becomes a non-paying lodger thanks to this woman’s kindness. The woman who identifies herself only as “Abuela” (which means grandmother) doesn’t speak English, but the two of them manage with signs and gestures.
I will have to condense the story from this point. Diana eventually connects with the girl, Beatriz, who is troubled, and who cuts herself. They have an uneasy relationship, but Diana is lonely. She desperately needs someone to talk to, and Beatriz at least speaks English. Otherwise, all she can do is swim and take walks and, gingerly, explore the island, which is beautiful, though iguanas are everywhere. The man who warned her about the apples, Gabriel, turns out to be Beatriz’s father. He has a difficult time connecting to his daughter, and in time, Diana becomes a kind of mediator, helping both the daughter and the father to relate to each other in a more loving way. Abuela is Beatriz’s grandmother. Diana becomes part of their family, and over the course of the next couple of weeks, she starts to feel at home, especially since by then, Gabriel has definitely warmed up to Diana, and as a former tour guide, offers to show her around the island, and does.
But she still misses Finn terribly, and since she can only write him postcards, that’s the sole way she can communicate to him. Beatriz offers to mail the postcards for her, but as we later learn, she doesn’t. She keeps them tied in a rubber band, hidden in one of her dresser drawers. She wants Diana to stay. And when the two weeks are up and Diana is prepared at last to leave, she finds she can’t. There are still no flights, and the island is still closed. Diana is there for the duration, months.
Meanwhile, back in New York, Finn has been able to send one-way e-mails to Diana. They are only about how terrible things are at his hospital. He is working 36-hour shifts, hundreds of people are dying, there are still not enough ventilators, and the medical staff is exhausted. In one letter he writes:
I’m on hour 34 of my 12-hour shift, because they aren’t enough of to us to take care of the patients. They started arriving and they haven’t stopped. They all show up gasping and by the time they get here, they’re already screwed. They try to suck in air, but there’s nowhere for the air to go…
There are many such plangent e-mails from Finn, and they typically go on for more than page detailing these horrors and Finn’s exhaustion.
Finn is in hell; Diana is in paradise.
And of course in time, Diana and Gabriel grow closer. He turns out be surprisingly literate – he’s even read Moby-Dick – and tells Diana that he can’t stop thinking about her. One thing leads to another, and ultimately they wind up sleeping together. She loves him, too. And she’s become very close to Beatriz as well.
You, as the reader, can see where the author is going with this. The tension in the story is palpable and full of portents. Diana is very happy, and Finn and the dreaded virus are far away. Perhaps this is where Diana belongs after all.
Gabriel is still taking Diana to see parts of the island that only he knows, that are special to him, and where tourists never go -- to beautiful lakes, scenic views, even a volcano. One day they go swimming in the ocean but there are riptides, and Diana, panicked, is in danger of drowning. She cries out for Gabriel who fights his way to her, grabs a pedant around her neck, but it breaks off, and he loses contact with her. She will drown….
But then — and this really pissed me off — Diana awakens in a hospital. In New York! She has no idea how she got there and neither does the reader — until we both learn that she’s had COVID, been in a coma for five days and nearly died.
Apparently, she dreamed the whole thing about going to the Galápagos! Bloody hell. The first part of the book is very realistic with long conversations, detailed descriptions of the island and its people, lengthy e-mails from Finn, etc. And we are supposed to believe that she had dreamed the whole thing? Not possible, no way this could be a dream. She was there! But the reader feels swindled.
That’s the shocking plot twist, and it ends Part I of the book. But it’s not the end of the story because in Part II, the author will solve the mystery in a way that I never could have foreseen and which utterly astonished and thrilled me. Get ready for a mind-blowing revelation.
Before continuing with Diana’s story, there are a couple of things I need to explain. The first is, this is really a book about COVID, and it’s harrowing. This wasn’t so evident during the first part of this book once Diana gets to the Galápagos. Apart from Finn’s messages, of course, but mostly Diana is not having to deal with COVID or her fears of contracting it. In the second part of the book, however, we are with Diana in the hospital and, later, when she is finally getting better, in rehab.
In an Author’s Note, Picoult recounts how much research she did talking to health care professionals who were on the front lines during the terrible first year of the pandemic as well as to many people who were on ventilators and survived to describe their ordeal. She put all this information into Diana’s experience in recovering from COVID that takes up a good portion of the first part of the second half of her book. I hope none of you reading this blog had to endure a long hospitalization from COVID, but you will never read a more heartrending account of what that experience is like and how dreadful it is than in this book. You will read this section with a shudder.
The second thing I need to mention is that, because of space limitations, I will be able to give only a cursory summary of the rest of Diana’s story. Instead, I will concentrate on just two aspects that relate to the stunning discovery I made in reading this book.
Understandably, no one believes that Diana was “really” in the Galápagos despite the fact that she continues to insist that her experiences there were “real,” that they really happened. But shrinks and Finn and some of her friends are convinced that she just had an intense hallucination or it was just some kind of weird dream brought about by the drugs she was given in the hospital when she nearly died.
“When she nearly died….” When I was reading this portion of her book, I couldn’t help but think of all the NDErs I had interviewed or heard from who often complained that their experience was dismissed by professionals and others as “just a dream or a hallucination.”
Diana scours the internet trying to find someone who had an experience anything like hers, and she finally succeeds. She finds a man who has a clear memory of another life in which he has a wife and a three-year-old child. He tells her in his other life he was a computer programmer whereas in this life, now that he’s back, he can’t even figure out how to use his remote. Also, he was a Muslim there while before he was Catholic. As with Diana, no one will believe him.
Then, seemingly out of blue, the man asks Diana, “Do you know what an NDE is?”
And then he goes on for the next page or so, telling Diana all about NDEs about which he’s obviously done a lot of research.
But there’s more, and another surprise to come. He asks Diana whether she’s ever seen an MRI scan of someone with end-stage Alzheimer’s. When Diana says. no, he then goes on the say this, which floored me:
“There’s hundreds of reports of patients with dementia who can suddenly remember and think clearly and communicate just before they die. Even though their brains are destroyed. It’s called terminal lucidity, and there’s no medical explanation for it.”
But this discussion of terminal lucidity connects to another portion of Diana’s story, which I haven’t yet mentioned. It concerns her mother who basically left Diana and her father when Diana was very young to pursue a career as a photographer. She became world-famous for her photographs, especially in war zones or in natural disasters. But she was afflicted with early onset of Alzheimer’s and had been in a nursing home for many years during which time, on Diana’s rare visits to see her, she no longer recognized her daughter.
But after Diana recovers, she engages in a series of risky COVID behaviors in order to spend time with her mother. She wants to make amends for her neglect. Her mother can converse with Diana, but she still doesn’t recognize who she is. Until….
Until she’s close to death having contracted COVID. There’s been an outbreak of COVID in her mother’s facility, and visitors are not allowed. But resourceful Diana, unafraid of contracting COVID again, finds a way and sneaks into her mother’s room.
“Who are you,” the mother asks with panic in her voice.
“Hi, it’s just me...”
Her mother puts on her glasses and looks again at her visitor, and then says:
“Diana, I’m sorry, baby…. I don’t feel so good today.”
Diana falls against the frame of the door, telling us “She hasn’t called me by name in years.”
“It’s really you,” her mother says.
A long lucid and healing conversation takes place after which her mother tires and Diana leaves before she’s discovered.
A classic case of terminal lucidity.
Not long afterward, Diana is informed of her mother’s death.
I hate to truncate this summary of Picoult’s book because I have to omit so much of the rest of the story, but I am close to the limit for this blog so brevity holds the trump card.
Finn and Diana break up. She tells him when he finally proposes. “You’re perfect, Finn, just not for me.”
She never returns to Sotheby’s. Instead, she goes back to graduate school to pursue a degree in art therapy and has a very rewarding career in that field. [This sort of occupational change is typical for NDErs.]
Does she ever return to Isabela Island? Yes, she does several years later. Of course by now, it has changed drastically. The house where she lived with Abuela is no longer there. The hotel where she was to have stayed is still there, but not the person who ran it. Some parts of the island seem familiar, some not. Beatriz would have grown up by now or left the island to return to school.
What about Gabriel, the man who first warned her about the poison apples by shouting “cuidado.”
These are the last words of the book when Diana is attempting to scale a retaining wall to get a better look at baby tortoises.
“I put my foot on it, intending to climb over, complete a rescue mission, and leave.
I have no idea why the sole of my sneaker slips.
I feel a hand grab my wrist the moment before I fall.
And I turn.”
[My alternate ending: “I turn, and it’s him.”]