The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult. (Random House, 2020)
Death has never been more a part of my consciousness than in the year 2020. We are getting daily death totals just like we used to get on the nightly news during the Vietnam War. But, death is not a subject that humans like to dwell on. Most of us put thoughts of our mortality on the back burner so that we are able to function without fearing the day when we pass through the veil.
And that is what makes The Book of Two Ways, Jodi Picoult’s latest bestseller, so unique and interesting. The protagonist of the story, Dawn Edelstein, once a student of Egyptology, has changed course in her life, due to unforeseen obligations. Instead of pursuing her doctorate on the Egyptian coffin text, the Book of Two Ways, which was the first known map of the afterlife, she must take a more mundane path.
A rare find in a few coffins in Middle Egypt, The Book of Two Ways “showed two roads snaking through Osiris’s realm of the dead: a land route, back, and a water route, blue, which are separated by a lake of fire.” Both roads lead to the same place, the Field of Offerings in which the dead reside with Osiris forever. However, some of the paths one could take might encounter demons who could stop the wanderer and prevent him from reaching Osiris. Or, some souls took paths that lead nowhere. Dawn is fascinated with this text and wants to translate and interpret it.
Dawn, though deeply in love with an archeologist on the archeological site, Wyatt Armstrong, is called home unexpectedly to help her dying mother and care for her younger brother. Her passion for her work in Egypt soon fades, as does her love of Wyatt. Instead of digging in the dust to open sarcophagi and give her interpretation of The Book of Two Ways, Dawn becomes a death doula and a wife to a loving husband.
The job of a death doula is to guide a terminally ill patient through the valley of death with grace and dignity. She also helps the loved ones of the patient, nurturing their needs and tending to their pain as they have to watch the patient wither and die.
Therefore, whether Dawn is studying in the desert of Egypt or following her calling as a death doula, she is consumed with death . . . until she is suddenly faced with the very real possibility of her own. The book opens with Dawn aboard a plane when a voice informs the passengers to brace for a crash landing. As Dawn prepares to die, she does not see her loyal husband, a sweet but mundane physics teacher, or her daughter Meret. Instead, she tells us, “I see him.”
Picoult’s book is so fascinating from many perspectives including her impressive research on the ancient Egyptians and their customs regarding life and death. Much of her knowledge, she ascertains in the afterword, was inspired by her son, who studied Egyptology at Yale University. Picoult states, “After my son, Kyle Ferriera van Leer, declared his major in Egyptology at Yale in 2010, he mentioned the Book of Two Ways in passing. I said, ‘That’s a great title for a novel.’ It was only after he began to explain what it actually was that I realized what I needed to write about---the construct of time, and love, and life, and death.”
I have always loved Jodi Picoult’s stories “ripped from the headlines,” not unlike the t.v. show, Law and Order. Her tales are about the real world, stories about school shootings, heart transplants, and the challenges of relationships under all kinds of stress. I found this novel to be her best because it is so rich in history, probes our consciences (who would you think about if your plane was going down?) and forces us to face what we think death will be like, and how will the ones who love us handle our mortality.
Also, the rich character development, particularly that of Dawn, gives the reader a lot to ponder. Her actions following the airplane crash seem very selfish, and not terribly likeable, but later when she is accused of being self-absorbed, she reminds us that she has foregone all of her life’s desires to help her family when they were in dire straits. Is she a selfish person, or is she selfless?
In conclusion, The Book of Two Ways will stay with you for quite a while after you have turned the last page. Do not miss the opportunity to read this richly written story by Jodi Picoult.