Jodi Picoult’s delightfully escapist, high-concept novel, The Book of Two Ways (Ballantine Books), opens dramatically: 30-something death doula Dawn Edelstein confronts her own potential demise as her airplane starts a mad descent. One of three dozen survivors of the ensuing crash, she staggers away knowing how, in her final moments, she hadn’t been thinking of her husband Brian, a steadfast quantum mechanics professor obsessed with questions of parallel lives and universes. Instead, she was focused on Wyatt Armstrong, the British archeologist she left fifteen years prior in the middle of an Egyptian dig, abandoning her Ph.D.  

EGYPT: A LOST LOVE REVISITED

Picoult presents two pathways. In scenario one, called “Land/Egypt,” Dawn takes the airline up on their offer to fly her anywhere in the world, freshly determined to finish her work on a translation of the ancient Egyptian text known as The Book of Two Ways­ — and, more importantly, bent upon seeing what-might-have-been with Wyatt. All but abandoning Brian and their daughter, Meret — whom she checks in on sporadically — she arrives in Cairo disheveled, groggy and with few possessions. Yet, she is bolstered by memories: “my own hands and nails, brown with dust; the unlikely relief of hot tea on a blistering day. The ache in my arches after a day on my feet. The tail of a white scarf floating behind me on a bicycle.”

The question of what-if quickly overtakes Dawn. Back in familiar terrain, she says, “I think about all the people whose hands I have held as they step off a cliff, into the unknown. Each time, I am floored by the bravery of humans. Each time, I am aware of what a coward I am.” Waiting for Wyatt to return from his latest dig, she reads his dissertation. Once an arrogant and headstrong competitor as they pursued their degrees side by side, his work in her absence has drawn heavily on her ideas. When Wyatt appears, Dawn talks her way into resuming her research, and she soon leads him to a career-making discovery. As the former couple grows closer, they reveal the truth about what happened after she left. Wyatt tried finding her, sending multiple letters that were lost in transit, and yet the matter of to what degree he’s moved on remains an open question. Indeed, complications soon arise, begging the question of whether you can resuscitate a romance and/or escape the person you’ve become through a panoply of formative decisions.  

BOSTON: A SAFE LIFE RE-EXAMINED

In scenario two, named “Earth/Boston,” the crash hasn’t yet transpired. Instead, the inciting incident comes when Brian missed Meret’s fourteenth birthday in order to spend time with one of his adoring assistants, ignoring Dawn’s phone calls. Unsettled, Dawn examines her staid life with a fresh perspective. She tries desperately to bond with Meret, who struggles with insecurity over her looks and a sense of not belonging, while “repair[ing] the sieve of [her] marriage,” unable to forgive Brian when he insists he didn’t cheat but admits that he felt tempted. Almost against her own will, she finds herself looking up Wyatt on the internet. Brian discovers her, unleashing a new round of recriminations about infidelity, intimacy and honesty.  

Meanwhile, a flinty and resourceful professional, Dawn takes on a new client, a would-be artist named Win, seeing in her a kindred spirit. Over the course of many intimate conversations, Dawn teaches Win about Egyptian lore, thereby renewing her own interest in it. At the same time, Dawn learns about the meaning of art and the power of bold expression. As Win says, “When you’re an artist … it’s because there’s something inside of you that you can’t keep from spilling out. … It’s the emotion there isn’t a word for. The feeling that’s too big for your body. To show someone your soul, you have to bleed. People who are comfortable — people who are content — they don’t create art.” Dumbstruck and still reeling from Brian’s near-betrayal and her renewed feelings for Wyatt, Dawn assesses the emotional toll of settling for a safe life, i.e. suppressing the all-consuming feeling Win describes. Soon, Win’s unexpected dying wish furnishes Dawn an opportunity to revisit Egypt.   

TWO PATHS: PASSION VS. SECURITY

Like spirits stirred from a buried tomb, Dawn’s two stories toggle between Boston and Egypt, past and present, until all of the characters eventually confront each other, forcing an ultimate, gut-wrenching decision. The Book of Two Ways will appeal to fans of movies such as Sliding Doors or the more recent HBO show Run. Readers who enjoyed Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff might be similarly attracted to the content. Although stylistically Picoult’s writing is more accessible and middle-brow, both novels grapple with questions of passion and art, probing into what makes for a great marriage and life. 

True to Win’s description of art, The Book of Two Ways nearly spills over in its earnestness and emotion as Dawn contemplates regret, loss and choices made impulsively. This is a book of big, burning questions such as what defines a great life. Picoult contends, “What you know isn’t nearly as important as who you know. Who will miss you. Who will you miss.” Delving into matters of love, Picoult asks us if we should bank on the potentially slower-burning relationship we often find during the sober years of our adulthood — or hang onto the more passionate and potentially ruinous love that made us who we are in our youth? She leaves readers to ponder this final puzzle on our own, independent of her clever and often playful counsel.

Buy this book!

Photo © Nina Subin

Jodi Picoult is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of twenty-five novels, including Small Great Things, Leaving Time, The Storyteller, Lone Wolf, Sing You Home, House Rules, Handle with Care, Change of Heart, Nineteen Minutes and My Sister’s Keeper. She is also the author, with daughter Samantha van Leer, of two young adult novels, Between the Lines and Off the Page. Picoult lives in New Hampshire with her husband and three children.