Warning: Do not read this review if you haven’t read the book. BUT, if you have, please read, so I can talk about it with someone!
I didn’t realize I was ready for a reflective, honest, poignant deep dive into the COVID-19 pandemic until I read Jodi Picoult’s 2021 novel, Wish You Were Here. And that’s primarily because Picoult was clever: I didn’t realize I was reading a COVID-19 book until about half-way through. Or rather, I didn’t realize it was the central story rather than something happening on the peripheral affecting the characters.
You see, our primary character, Diana O’Toole, is on the right path, she thinks. She’s almost 30, is about to get her big break in the art business world, and she’s pretty certain that her boyfriend, Finn, is going to propose to her when they take a romantic, bucket list getaway to the Galápagos Islands. She’s not just on the right path by happenstance: This is her plan.
But then, COVID-19 happens. Finn is a resident surgeon who becomes one of the key players on the frontlines in New York City, which was hit badly in March 2020. He tells Diana to go without him to the Galápagos because they already paid the money, so why not? She goes, and in one of the worst scenarios imaginable (at least initially), she is stranded on Galápagos Island, as it is shut down due to COVID-19, no flights in or out, and nothing on the island, including her hotel, is open (initially), and she speaks rudimentary, at best, Spanish. Oh, and the spicy icing on top of that carrot cake (I hate carrot cake)? Virtually no contact with the outside world since the WiFi is spotty at best. Yikes.
See, my mystery thriller brain was in overdrive: Again, I was viewing COVID-19 on the peripheral and I was already suspecting nefarious things about Finn. That he intentionally sent her to the to the Galápagos to … I don’t know, but something bad!
Anyhow, I thought Diana was both a bit of an oblivious jerk, and a bit of an oblivious idiot at first, because how could she really go without her boyfriend, and how could she really go on the precipice of COVID-19? The former was resolved later (more on that in a moment), and the latter, well, that is me saying it with hindsight. I think we all have memories of where we were when we realized COVID-19 was actually serious — when the NBA shut its season down, when Tom Hanks got the virus, etc. — and the last big thing we did before the world turned upside down (I was at a newspaper awards banquet), but virtually nobody could expect what was to come. Even in the book, Diana earnestly believes, as we all hoped in real life, that the island will only be shut down for two weeks, i.e., the pandemic will pass by then. Or be under control.
My belief that Diana was a jerk only intensified when she meets former tour guide, Gabriel, and Beatriz, his daughter, on the island, and she has sex with Gabriel, cheating on Finn! But that aside, everything else about her time on the island was lovely, particularly her budding relationship with Beatriz, where she helps the 15-year-old, who cuts herself and is struggling with her sexual identity, open up and talk more. Beatriz, for her part, begins to plant the seed in Diana’s mind about returning to her artistic roots.
Being on the island, realizing that she doesn’t necessarily always have to have a plan, Diana is realizing she can be untethered … and survive. The obvious connection owing to the setting, and echoed in the quote at the beginning of the book, is to Darwin, evolution, survival, and adaptation. She is adapting. She is living. Think about it this way: Instead of planning, which means Diana’s head is always in the future, she can’t plan anymore due to COVID-19 and being stuck on an island, so she’s forced to live in the present. To just be. And she’s starting to like it.
Meanwhile, Finn is sending exceedingly awful emails that he hopes find their way to her about his time in New York City dealing with COVID-19, and just how … dystopian it seems (I hate to do this as an aside, but one of the most heartbreaking moments in the book is when Finn just can’t take the sound of the ambulance sirens anymore and begs for them to stop). Then you remember, as the reader, this was real life! This is what the nurses and doctors, many of whom Picoult actually interviewed to distill them through the Finn character, actually faced. I simply cannot imagine. You were not going through that experience unscathed, even the most hardened, thick-skinned doctor.
Meanwhile to those dark emails, we also learn that Diana has a mother, much like Beatriz’s mother, who was absent, albeit it in the case of Diana’s mother, it was because she was a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer going into war zones and other hellscapes. We later learn she was just terrified of being a mother. But now, as fate would have it, her mother has Alzheimer’s and is forgetting Diana. Her father, who doted on her and fostered her love of art, died in a freak accident four years prior. Speaking of accidents, Gabriel’s father also died in a freak accident doing what they loved in being tour guides showing the tourists a snorkeling spot…
When I started making those connections, I’m like, okay, this is way too convenient, Picoult! You happen to get stuck on an island, and happen to find two people who are nice to you and help you out, and both have stories that are reflective of your own experience?! But just wait … I have one more meanwhile.
Meanwhile, we also learn what Diana was doing at Sotheby’s, the art business, where they auction off world-class paintings. We meet Kitomi Ito, who was married to Sam Pride of the Nightjars until Pride was assassinated in New York City, and anyway, people blamed Ito for the downfall of the Nightjars and Pride. But Ito has a famous painting gifted to her by Pride that would make Diana’s career, and it’s Diana who convinces her to let Sotheby’s do the auction. If what I just said, minus the painting part, sounds familiar, it’s because it is! Swap in Yoko Ono, John Lennon, and The Beatles, and that’s clearly Picoult’s inspiration. But Ito serves as more than just an easy Beatles imitation; she serves as yet another way in which Diana will examine her life and whether she’s living it for the right reasons and in the right way.
At one point while on the Galápagos, Diana begins to drown in a ripe tide like Gabriel’s father did. Then, she wakes up and is in a COVID-19 ICU ward of the New York City hospital where Finn works. WHAT. Just like the COVID-19 pandemic itself, Picoult mirrored the “rug being pulled out from under you” feeling we all collectively experienced; how in one moment, the world (as we knew it in America, at least; Italy and France were dire warnings) was its bustling, normal self, and the next, even Times Square was a ghost town.
Now, normally, it seems to be one of the cardinal sins of writing for the plot to build up to it “all being a dream,” but it 100 percent worked here under Picoult’s deft, beautiful mind and plotting, and particularly with the follow-up. That is, when we realize that Diana tested positive for COVID-19 early, and was actually on a ventilator and nearly died. For five days, it seemed dicey that she would make it. In those five days, she experienced months at the Galápagos Islands. It seemed so real, but it was all a dream. Or a hallucination. Or PTSD. Or something.
And welp, back to reality, a reality that she doesn’t remember as closely: Six feet of separation, masks, thousands dead, millions infected, everything shutdown, her mom still alive (on the Islands, she died), etc. Picoult captures in a way that is giving me goosebumps right now just how surreal a once-in-a-century pandemic was to experience, particularly for someone that survived a bad case of COVID-19. Again, Picoult interviewed survivors and others who came out of a coma and other near-death experiences, or NDEs as she refers to them, to inform her writing. It shows. It feels authentic.
We went from wondering if Diana can survive and adapt to the Galápagos Islands to wondering if she can survive a deadly disease and adapt to learning to function as “normal” adult again by learning how to move her limbs, swallow again, walk again, dress herself again, and so on. Which is interesting because it mirrors everything her own mother is losing (and would succumb to) due to Alzheimer’s.
Whether the paradise of the Galápagos Island, the upending nature of COVID-19, or the way in which Alzheimer’s roles back our developmental clock until we’re nearly infants again unable to pick up our own head from the pillow or smile, Picoult taps into how precarious our notion of reality is, and how easily the veneer can be pierced. There are intimate consequences to that piercing, too, like Diana understanding her mother better, or realizing she wants to pursue art therapy instead of her career at Sotheby’s, or most heart-achingly, when she denies Finn’s proposal that finally arrives and instead, breaks up with him. As she accurately states, and which hit close to home for me, obligation isn’t love, and even though he did right by her while she was experiencing near-death, a sense of obligation to reciprocate that, or stay in a relationship because of it, isn’t love; that is something closer to transactional.
In life and in love, I think we are always moving and plotting ahead because we are afraid of what it means to be still. To be forced to just be in the present. As Picoult explains in her Author’s Note, and through the book’s plot itself, even though nobody would wish a once-in-a-century pandemic upon the globe to force us to learn what matters, or to learn how to embrace stillness, the pandemic’s byproduct was exactly that.
Thinking about art as she’s talking to Gabriel and staring into the fire, Diana reflects, Flames are the one thing you can’t ever really replicate in art. The moment you make them static in paint, you take away their magic.
Humans are terrified of being reduced to static and thus, losing our own magic, but I think what Picoult is telling us is that we can be still and still magical. We can burn brightly right here, right now, even if we don’t know how long the flame will burn and if it will be snuffed out by external forces, and what the flame will uncover with its light. (A classic human fear is the dark and the unknown, after all.)
In the first half of the book, I thought the title was obvious: Finn wishing Diana was there with him, or Diana wishing that of Finn; both were scared and unsure of their newfound predicaments. Then when the book flipped, I thought the title was about Finn wishing Diana was there, out of her near-death experience, and that Diana, still longing for her Galápagos Islands experience because it seemed so real, as did Gabriel and Beatriz, wished they were here instead of her actual COVID-19 present.
But after making it this far in my review and thinking about it, I have a new theory on the title: Wish You Were Here is a clarion call from Diana … to herself, for her to recover what was lost, paved over by her path and plan for what she thought her life ought to look like rather than what she deeply ached for. In surviving COVID-19, she is now “here,” and gets that chance.
I didn’t think flipping the book on its head was going to work, but Picoult made a believer out of me because it mirrored the story she was telling. Bravo, and well-done. If you’ve read this book, I’d love to hear your take on it and the twist. If you haven’t, why did you read this far?! But thank you reading, I guess, you weirdo!