It’s both fascinating and repelling to read a novel about New York during the worst of COVID, our modern-day version of the Black Plague. Many authors choose to skip any references to COVID for many reasons, but in “Wish You Were Here,” author Jodi Picoult writes unflinchingly about the worst of it, sparing us no details about the deaths, the few instances of people recovering from being intubated, and the fallout from that intubation. This novel is both delightful and horrifying, but at heart it’s what we expect from this prolific author—it’s thoughtful and life-affirming.
As with the plot, which is like a two-faced coin, each side telling a different story, Diana O’Toole is a complex person. Both her parents worked in the arts, and she loved making art from an early age. But in response to her mother’s chosen field, photojournalism, which caused her to travel the world instead of spending time with her husband and child, Diana has ensured that her field, the business of art, will allow her success and a comfortable lifestyle while still providing connection to the art she loves. In fact, Diana has planned her life carefully. There are goals she has plotted on the star chart of her lifetime: marriage by 30, house and children by a certain age, travel to certain places, retirement. It’s all neatly planned out, and she and Finn, her boyfriend, currently in his surgery residence, are on track to fulfill their joint expectations.
But life has a way of upsetting the best laid plans, and when COVID raises its ugly head right before they are to leave for two weeks in paradise, the Galápagos Islands, neither of them has any way to predict what will happen. Finn breaks the news that he can’t leave as his hospital is overwhelmed with COVID patients, but he tells Diana that she should go without him. They won’t get their money back from part of the trip, and he says he’ll feel better if she’s away because he’ll be spending most of his time at the hospital, anyway. He wants her safe.
So Diana heads to the Galápagos, and she’s the only tourist who chooses to stay on Isabela Island after everything shuts down because of COVID. She meets locals and befriends Beatriz, a troubled teenage girl who is the granddaughter of the woman who had offered Diana a room to stay in because her hotel was closed and Diana had nowhere else to go. Beatriz’ father, Gabriel, also takes Diana under his wing, showing her the island, even parts that tourists don’t usually get to see. Diana’s “vacation” becomes extended; the travel restrictions make it impossible for her to return home to New York. And during those months — yes, the two-week vacation has turned into months — Diana has lots of time to do nothing but think about life, her parents, her estrangement from her mother, her career choices, and her life plan.
Halfway through the book there is a huge plot twist, which cannot be revealed because that would be a certain spoiler. But it is a complete surprise, totally unexpected, and it makes us reconsider Diana’s experiences in the Galápagos and how they changed her. Through Picoult’s eyes and those of the characters in this novel, we see a fictionalized version of the reality that was and still is COVID. We experience, through Finn’s anguished narrative, the horror and depression that medical professionals experienced during the worst of the pandemic. And perhaps most powerfully, Picoult does what she excels at in her novels—taking a real situation, focusing on a few participants, and exposing the real, intimate details of how such a situation might affect people. In “I Wish You Were Here,” she does that in a way that will leave each of us reflecting on our own lives. Did we live our life doing what was best for us, or best for the world at large? And is it too late to change?
Powerful thoughts for a tumultuous time in history.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.