A stumble opens up new world

I love to read. For an hour or three I can escape into another world and leave behind life's mundane stresses, filling my imagination with tales of vampires, werewolves, wizards and treasure-seeking archaeologists. My bedside table overflows with the novels of Laurel K. Hamilton, Anne Rice, Richard Matheson and James Rollins -- any flight of fancy that takes me on the mental vacation my pocketbook can't afford. That is, until Jodi Picoult tricked me.

One blistering July day, I stumbled into the Wake County Library on Duraleigh Road for a refreshing blast of air conditioning and a new paperback to occupy me at the pool. Cruising through the stacks, I came upon a worn paperback titled "Salem Falls." The novel follows a former teacher, Jack St. Bride, who lost everything after a student falsely accused him of rape. Now the new guy in Salem, Mass., he is targeted with a similar accusation by a group of young girls who dabble in witchcraft. A modern witch hunt ensues as each girl rushes to fling new accusations his way.

Witchcraft. That easily fell within my fantastical requirements. But "Salem Falls" isn't really about witchcraft or the occult. It's an engaging novel about the dark side of human nature, small-town mentality and the hysteria of finger-pointing in the face of tragedy. Man, I was hooked.

The next day, I rushed to the library to gather up all the Picoult books I could find. It turns out the book I found on the shelf was a rarity. They are always checked out. You have to reserve them and wait your turn. In November, I got on the waiting list -- at No. 34 -- for Picoult's newest novel, "Change of Heart," which was released March 4. In "Change of Heart," a mother must look to the man convicted of killing her husband and first child to save her second.

Character connections

Picoult's strength is character development. All of her novels are told in multiple points of view. Each character is a living, breathing person with a full, emotional life beyond the primary plot. In one book, I feel more connected to her characters than those in serials I've been reading for years.

There are no truly good or evil characters. Picoult understands that human nature is never that black and white. We are both loving and cruel. The choices we make define us.

Each novel presents a profound set of choices for the characters to wade through. There is always a crime, a tragedy or a significant family decision at stake. Picoult pushes her characters to the limit while dealing with abuse, death, family and love. As her characters are flawed human beings, these novels end the way they would in real life -- with love unrequited, the pain of loss and the guilty punished.

My favorite Picoult, "My Sister's Keeper," is also the one that almost turned me away. This powerful story of two sisters, one terminally ill and the other conceived as a bone marrow match, horrified me with the notion that a couple could blatantly put the needs of one child over those of another. When she turns 13, Anna is told she must donate a kidney to her sister, Kate. She sues to gain medical emancipation from her parents. Her motives, it turn out, are not as selfish as her mother proclaims. I laughed, I cried. I wanted the family to have to deal with the consequences of their actions. The subject matter proved too real for Picoult; she cheated me out of my ending. I was so upset I swore I'd never pick her up again. But I did. Anyone who can get me that invested in fiction is worth another chance. I'm glad I did.

A story hits home

When writing about love, family and spirituality, a story line is eventually going to hit home. "My Sister's Keeper" was that novel for Picoult. "Nineteen Minutes" was the one that got me. The novel deals with a high school shooting tragedy in a small town. The story is told through the eyes of the teenage shooter, his parents, a witness to the crime, her parents and the investigating officer first on the scene, among others.

I'm from Paducah, Ky., the site of a school shooting in 1997. My mother was teaching at Paducah Tilghman High School at the time. I was working in Albuquerque, N.M. when the news came over the wire. It took more than an hour to get through to her on her cell phone. She was OK. The shooting was at a different area high school, though we knew a teacher involved. I can still taste the fear all these years later.

Picoult's description of the first officer on the scene is so visceral, I had to keep putting it down. The screaming children, the sound of the gunshots, the chaos. It was overwhelming. Picoult is not gratuitous in her descriptions. But that scene told through the emotional eyes of the officer made me feel like I was right there.

Realism has become my new escapism. I love exploring the Amish culture in "Plain Truth" and the Alaskan Eskimo village in "The Tenth Circle." I'm reminded what it was like to be a teenager in "The Pact" and "Nineteen Minutes." Picoult writes teenagers better than anyone. She treats them as they are: children discovering adulthood. Picoult often reminds parents how little they know about their kids and the dangers lurking in that ignorance.

Picoult also knows how to love. She shows us how to open ourselves up to new possibilities. Whether it's a family rekindling a waning love in "Songs of the Humpback Whale" or the exhilaration and struggle of first love in "The Pact," Picoult understands the power of love to protect and to destroy us.

I've come to love the real people and real questions posed by Picoult's novels. I've learned a lot about myself as I ponder the moral questions she asks of her characters. What is the right decision? Would I make it? And this positive experience has opened me up to other similar authors, like Anita Shreve, Audrey Niffenegger and Joyce Carol Oates.

I'm still fighting vampires with Anita Blake, but thanks to Jodi Picoult, I get a dose of reality now and then.