THE BOOK OF TWO WAYS by Jodi Picoult (2020)
We finally made it to the last month of 2020, a year that has seemed like a decade with all its changes and upheavals. As we take time to reflect upon what we did and what remains to be done before 2020 ends, we should also look ahead to contemplate what we want to accomplish in 2021. Whether or not we make New Year’s resolutions, we will surely have ideas about choices we want to make in our lives, both for ourselves and for our loved ones, and perhaps clear up unfinished business. But as the old saying goes, the best-laid plans…you know the rest.
Jodi Picoult’s latest book The Book of Two Ways is dense, intense, filled with information pertaining to the characters’ careers and interests, emotionally engaging, unique. It may be the best book of the many I’ve read this year, and I know it will affect my choices and decisions for 2021.
Dawn Edelstein (née McDowell) is an American woman nearing 40 living in Boston. She’s married to a university physics professor, has a teenage daughter who is extremely sensitive about her weight, and works as a death doula.
We meet her as the plane in which she is a passenger crashes. She is able to walk away, but the fact that many aboard were injured or died prompts her to ask the big question: Why me? She also realizes that it wasn’t Brian, her husband of 15 years, she thought of at the moment of possible death. Instead it was Wyatt, a man she loved in the earlier part of her life.
Dawn had started out living a very different life. From an early age, she had loved ancient Egypt, and pursued an Egyptology Ph.D. at Yale. She was very good in her field, well on her way probably to an academic and publishing career, and already becoming known in the field. In her small class at Yale, she encountered Wyatt, already a star in the same field. They worked together and went on the same annual archeological expeditions to Egypt for 3 years.
Dawn thought she hated Wyatt; that he was arrogant, egotistical, and, if truth be told, treading on her toes by working on a different part of her chosen work: The Book of Two Ways.
Despite its name, this was not an actual book, but rather “the first known map of the afterlife.” It was painted on the inner bottom of some coffins from Egypt’s Middle Kingdom. “It showed two roads snaking through Osiris’s realm of the dead: a land route, black, and a water route, blue…separated by a lake of fire.” [p. 13] Some paths were dead ends. “Embedded in the text [was] the magic [needed] to get past the guardians of the gates.” [p. 14]
On their third expedition together, they made 2 significant discoveries: an older tomb that no one else had been able to find; and they loved each other fiercely.
Not long after these revelations, Dawn received word that her mother was dying from cancer in a hospice in America. She was so shocked, she left Egypt immediately, and Wyatt was out of her life. So began the second “way” of her life, a complete break from the first “way” as more of a reflex than a deliberate choice.
At the hospice, Dawn tended to her mother in every way she could. She also met Brian, a man whose grandmother was dying in the same hospice, who took it upon himself to take care of Dawn. In shock and suddenly jerked into an entirely different world, she accepted the comfort and safety he offered. The relationship continued after her mother died. After her daughter was born, and with a 13-year-old brother to care for, Brian and Dawn married.
Dawn found that she liked working with terminally ill people and was good at it. She was already acquainted with death from her studies of Egypt. She worked at the hospice for a few years, then studied to officially become a death doula. As such, she was not a caretaker, but rather someone who was hired to do whatever the patient needed and whatever would provide solace and comfort. She acted as a guide along the person’s road to the final destination. Basically, she was putting The Book of Two Ways to use in a modern and personal way.
Fast forward fifteen years. An incident occurred with Brian that caused problems in the marriage. It wasn’t terribly serious, but it made her unsettled and served to make her think about her life. The shock of the plane crash knocked Wyatt to the forefront of her mind. Whether or not she consciously realized it, she had unfinished business with him and went to Egypt to find him. The fact that he was in Egypt at a time of year when he normally wouldn’t be there gave her the chance to find out why she was there.
I’m going to stop the story here. This book is filled with so much, it must be up to each reader to discover what is personally meaningful. I’ll give the reader a few hints: pay attention to the daughter Meret; to Dawn’s relationship with her patient Win, a woman exactly the same age as Dawn and dying of cancer; and to the times in Dawn’s life when she and Wyatt are together.
Picoult says that she “needed to write about—the construct of time, and love, and life, and death.” [p. 409] Along the way, she writes about Egyptology, quantum physics, and details of dying. Readers need not be intimidated by these heady subjects. While Picoult gets “into the weeds” at times, she explains them and how they apply to her stated mission so well that readers will understand.
For me, the most intriguing idea comes from quantum physics as Brian explains it in the book: that we have different versions of ourselves out in the Universe. We can ask if the version we’re now living is the best one of ourselves. We can’t toggle between versions or dip into others to see if we like them better, then switch. We’re stuck with the one we’re in. But how exciting is this to think about, to imagine? How might we change the one we’re in now…would we even want to change it?
A second idea that intrigues me is brought up in a conversation between Dawn and the dying Win. Win doesn’t believe in destiny:
“The real question is whether I’d still be sitting here, dying, if I’d made different choices….Do you think that no matter what, everything you’ve done in the past, every decision you’ve made, would still have led you to this room, this discussion, this moment?” [p. 302]
The Book of Two Ways gives readers an opportunity to learn about new things: Egyptology, quantum physics, death as part of life. We can see how an ancient culture thought about and handled dying; what they believed about it. I think it gives readers healthy perspectives on death, and on life as well. I strongly recommend this book, but with the caveat that it’s read at a time when the reader is free to digest its ideas and consider them at leisure.
I will leave you with this quote from the book’s jacket:
“As the story unfolds, Dawn’s two possible futures unspool side by side, as do the secrets and doubts long buried with them. Dawn must confront the questions she’s never truly asked: What does a life well lived look like? When we leave this earth, what do we leave behind? Do we make choices…or do our choices make us? And who would you be if you hadn’t turned out to be the person you are right now?”
Food for thought to keep us occupied during Covid and help us move forward.
This book is available at the Grover Beach Community Library.