My Sister's Keeper - Readers' Group Summary

Posted at 03:39am on 7th September 2009


One of the intriguing aspects of Jodi Picoult’s novel, My Sister’s Keeper is that the reader is invited to read the Prologue before starting the book, and then to re-read it on finishing. The purpose was to determine in whose Viewpoint the piece had been written. Without exception, those of the Readers’ Group who had done so found that their perceptions changed – just as the author suggested they might.


So what, in essence, is the plot of the story and who is the central character? It might appear, on first reading, to be Anna’s story. She, after all, is one of the Viewpoint characters, and the story begins and ends with her bid for medical emancipation. Conceived as a designer baby, or sibling saviour, Anna has been created specifically to be a match for her sickly sister, Kate, in order that her birth might provide much needed stem-cell treatment for her older sister.

The reader might be forgiven, however, for believing the mother, Sara, to be the main character, since it is her driving force which compels Anna to undergo treatment after treatment – not for her own benefit, but for her sister’s. However, whilst understanding her motives, we all found it difficult to empathise with this character.

Or is it Kate, whose story – right through until the Epilogue – is told exclusively through the eyes of her family but whose plight, nevertheless, is on every page? There was no consensus in the group, and I leave it to you to decide.


I had already listed: medical emancipation – the right to make decisions in respect of your own body; the wonders of medical science; the sanctity of life; and the Wisdom of Solomon as possible themes.

Some members of the group felt that a primary theme was what was meant by family. There was little unity shown between the members of Anna’s family, and the benefits of feeling sufficiently secure in one’s relationships to be open and honest were markedly absent.

Two people felt that this theme was reinforced by the diffidence, bordering on neurosis, of one of the minor characters, the lawyer, Campbell, whose fear of being pitied or rejected prevented his admitting to his own health problems. The result was that his relationship with Julia, the social worker, had ended abruptly years earlier, causing both considerable heartache. Forced to work together as Anna’s protectors and guides, they story had to be worked through.

Jesse’s storyline also reinforced this theme. As the eldest child of the family, he was left with a huge sense of helplessness when he found that he was not a match for his sister. The anger that this generated, coupled with frustration with his parents (whose absorption with the girls meant that they had little time for him) was directed outwards, but in secret.

The deliberate laying and igniting of fires in remote, abandoned buildings, gave him a sense of power, of being in control in a different way, in that his father, Brian, a fire-fighter, was then required to put them out.

Although there were parallels between Anna's situation and the Christian story of salvation in that God, the Father, sent Jesus, his only son, as a Saviour, we agreed that no true correlation could be made. Jesus willingly embraced his fate, whilst Anna had no such choice.

As a baby she would have no voice, and even when older, a position of refusal to help her sister would be untenable. How could you live with yourself and your family, the group argued, if you refused to co-operate in saving your sibling? Some members of the group believed, whilst reading the book, that once having established her rights over her own body, Anna would then use that right to continue to help her sister.


This pattern of fire fighting was to be found throughout the book, and reinforced the futility of the medical intervention in Kate’s life. For that, in itself, was a form of fire fighting, as each new illness, frailty and condition was put out, another was ignited.

A second enduring motif was found in Brian’s interest in astronomy. Gazing at stars through a telescope seemed, in a way, to strengthen this feeling of futility. The remoteness of the celestial display emphasised the distance between himself and the dilemma into which his wife’s compulsion had dragged him. It was as if, in looking at the heavens, he was hoping to conjure up answers; solutions to the questions he appeared to be unable to handle in family life.


Every member of the group agreed on Anna’s right to have control of her own body. However, when that human right was broadened to include the question of embryo selection (and, therefore, destruction); abortion; and euthanasia the whole issue became less clear.

What we did agree upon, as a group, was that this was a 21st Century dilemma, since many of these procedures were not available until comparatively recently. Whilst the Victorian taboo centred upon sex, it seems that today’s is death. In this, the fiction appeared to mirror fact. Nowhere in the book was there any focus on anything but keeping the patient alive.

The discussion took a new direction: is life prolonged beyond what would once have been viable; beyond what is, even now, natural and beneficial? Whilst none of us would want to see medical intervention to end life prematurely, neither, we agreed, was it fair to keep human beings ‘alive’ on machines when all trace of ‘real life’ – the ability to reason, relate and communicate - was extinct.

And in this, too, the author delivered. For Kate’s feelings on the subject of her own quality of life – an issue which it appeared had never been considered by her family – is suddenly revealed in the denouement. Without wishing to give anything away, it is, I’m told, quite different an ending to that of the film. And in every way it fulfils the themes and threads of the book.


All members felt that the novel was a compelling read, raising interesting and challenging topics. However, on reflection, many of us considered certain aspects to be contrived: Kate’s mother conveniently being a lawyer, for example. Nevertheless, this is a book well worth reading and one which I, personally, enjoyed far more than any other of Jodi Picoult ‘s novels.

If you wish to use these conclusions to help your Book Group, feel free to do so. And if you have any questions about setting up a Readers’ Group, read my post: Setting Up A Book Group: Twenty Tips

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