By Cynthia Dickison Star Tribune
March 13, 2020. The first words of Jodi Picoult’s novel strike with dread, or at least apprehension. Do we really want to relive those disorienting and upsetting early days of the shutdown felt around the world?
“Wish You Were Here” doesn’t shy away from the devastation of COVID-19 – but it’s simply the springboard, born out of Picoult’s enforced isolation, for a story of self-discovery. The aforementioned date of infamy is the day Diana O’Toole’s boyfriend Finn informs her that as a doctor in New York, he cannot take their planned getaway to the Galapagos Islands. But “you should still go,” he told her, words that will haunt.
Whether this is a good idea is largely ignored. So Diana flies away the next day, leaving behind Finn, her sick mother and her rising star job at Sotheby’s. Perhaps the journey into the exotic unknown will help disguise his failure to secure a coveted Toulouse-Lautrec of the enigmatic Kotomi Ito (who bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain musician who broke the Beatles).
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Exotic and remote perhaps, but Galapagos is also in the throes of lockdown. Tired of traveling, Diana is greeted by a desert landscape; his luggage lost, his hotel closed, no ATM or Wi-Fi or cell signal. It is only thanks to the kindness of an old woman, Abuela — grandmother — that she finds a little sustenance and a bed for the night.
Nights turn into weeks turn into months. With no way to leave, Diana finds a home in this quiet paradise with Abuela, her grandson Gabriel, and her great-granddaughter Beatriz, who overcome their initial resentment to warm up to her in a very different way. For teenager Beatriz, it’s about finding a surrogate mother to unload on matters of family, art, love and sex. For Gabriel, a tour guide who has no one to guide him, it’s gratitude on behalf of his daughter – and also sex.
Oh, and Finn? The e-mails that trail are litanies of the wreckage he sees every day, interspersed with guilt and remorse at their separation. Diana’s attempts to reach him – by text, email, even postcard – are desperate at first, more sporadic as the days go by. Is it possible that she has found everything she needs? “In a weird way, being stripped of everything — my job, my significant other, even my clothes and my language — left only the essentials of me,” she muses.
But she has to come back, in a most unusual way. As the ravages of COVID hit close to home, Diana can’t shake the memories of the islands and doesn’t really want to. How can she return to the business of selling art, after discovering that she herself is an artist? How can she marry Finn, after her deep connection with Gabriel?
Picoult ditches her usual stylistic tricks — save for one big one — and it makes for a satisfying and empowering tale of a woman whose entire ecosystem has changed. The truth about Diana’s story is revealed in her one-on-one time with her new young confidante. “I have to go back to real life one day,” she says. To which Beatriz replies wistfully: “For a while, didn’t it seem real?”