Diana O’Toole is perfectly on track. She will be married by thirty, done having kids by thirty-five, and move out to the New York City suburbs, all while climbing the professional ladder in the cutthroat art auction world. She’s not engaged just yet, but she knows her boyfriend Finn, a surgical resident, is about to propose – days before her thirtieth birthday. Right on time.
But now she is stranded, alone on what was planned to be a romantic idyll with Finn. Unfortunately, Finn is trapped thousands of miles away, and Diana is on one of the world’s most beautiful islands with no food, no luggage, and no place to stay, forced to test her personal limits to survive.
Struggling to find her feet, Diana gradually connects with a local family when a teenager with a secret opens up to her. As Diana helps her fight her demons she learns more about herself, and about the islands of Galapagos, where Darwin developed his theory of evolution. The dramatic and sometimes dangerous terrain reflects Diana’s own experiences, her new relationships and growing awareness that she too is evolving into someone quite different.
A near-death experience brings Diana abruptly back to familiar city surroundings, where she tries to pick up the threads of her old life. Has she changed or have the people around her? Diana is no longer prepared to be just a follower, at work or in her relationships. She breaks down years of estrangement with her mother, takes the initiative in her career, and looks at Finn through new eyes.
Jodi Picoult’s latest novel Wish You Were Here follows art-enthusiast Diana after she’s stranded on a secluded beach holiday. Back at home in NYC, her surgeon boyfriend is realising first-hand how rampant and dangerous COVID is. Spending time with the locals forces Diana to re-evaluate the kind of life she thought she wanted.
From reading the blurb, I wasn’t expecting a COVID book. Diana is stranded in the Galapagos because she travels there without her boyfriend and then the world shuts down. Whilst I wasn’t thrilled at the idea of reading a COVID story — we’ve all lived through it enough for a lifetime — this story does feel universal. We can all imagine what that’d be like, getting stuck halfway across the world. We know how easily it can happen, considering how easily borders can shut — how soon places can be locked down.
“The ocean is flirting with the shore, rushing over it and then retreating. A movement draws my attention as a ragged outcropping of rock suddenly animates — not lava rock, as it turns out, but a tangle of marine iguanas that slide into the waves, diving down.”
The strength of this book lies in its depiction of COVID-19, the pandemic, and life on the front line for healthcare workers. Diana’s boyfriend is a surgeon and initially unphased when COVID infiltrates the USA. But, over time, through emails he writes to Diana, we come to understand the full extent of what COVID is like inside those hospital walls. For most of us, this is the most insight we’ll ever get, and Jodi tackles the pandemic with compassion and sensitivity. I’m sure she’ll have many readers who lost a loved one to COVID-19, and perhaps reading this latest novel might help them understand that what happened was completely outside their control.
Other strengths include how easily Jodi captures characters and their conflicts. Over time, Diana starts to question her job, her career, and her relationship, and the turmoil is handled realistically. Additionally, Jodi leaves each chapter and section with an opportunity of observation for reflection. This encourages readers to keep turning the page, feeling invited into the storyline.
“The sound comes from behind me and when I whip around, the spray of water keeps me from seeing anything. I turn away and it happens again. But this time when I turn, I’m a foot away from the curious stare of a sea lion. His eyes are black and soulful, his whiskers bob.”
Admittedly the love story between Diana and Gabriel didn’t quite feel realistic — I couldn’t help but feel it was a little rushed, as the climax of their story neared. And the friendship between Diana and Beatriz, and how Diana prompts Gabriel to re-connect with his daughter over her sexuality, felt a little didactic in its dialogue and interactions. Some of Jodi’s previous books I haven’t really liked as much because they felt a bit preach-y, and Diana and Beatriz’s relationship felt like a similar vein.
As the novel is split into two sections, Diana’s story in the Galapagos had to be established, developed and wrapped within a much shorter time frame and it did feel like there was room for expansion.
“I think of Finn, telling me to leave New York City. I think of the paid-in-full room waiting for me within walking distance of these docks. If the island is locking down for two weeks, then they must be assuming that’s how long it will take for the virus to be controlled.”
Timely and atmospheric, Wish You Were Here is part life story and part romance. It’ll make you miss international travel, and life before COVID. Although please note this book is heavily embedded within the pandemic, and some people won’t be interested in reading about it. Readership skews female, 25+
Thank you to the publisher for mailing me a review copy in exchange for an honest review.
Wish You Were Here
Allen & Unwin Book Publishers