‘Sing You Home’ relies more on subject than on style

Some authors find success because their stories are compelling and some because they play with controversial topics. It is no secret into which of these camps Jodi Picoult, best-selling author of “My Sister’s Keeper,” has placed herself; and her latest offering, “Sing You Home,” is no exception.

“Sing You Home” has at its center the relationship between Max and Zoe Baxter, who have tried over their nine-year marriage to overcome fertility issues. Zoe is willing to risk everything to try for a child, and Max can’t bear to go through it again. Their marriage, already fragile under the strain of combating infertility, collapses, and they part ways.

After the divorce, Zoe falls in love with and marries a woman, Vanessa Shaw. A stable relationship with a loving spouse reawakens her desire to be a mother. She has frozen embryos left over from her last round of in vitro fertilization, and she and Vanessa decide to use them.

Unfortunately, they need Max’s permission, and he has become an evangelical Christian. Instead of signing to allow his ex-wife access to the embryos, he sues for the right to donate them to his brother and sister-in-law, Reid and Liddy, who have also struggled to have a baby.

The writing isn’t dazzling, but the story is engaging enough to tug at a few heartstrings. It asks a few tough questions about what makes a family and a moral life.

The conflict is not perfectly set up; while the media firestorm and legal hoops feel realistically nasty, some of the Christian opponents are blatantly hypocritical and their message never really rings true.

The characters, especially the antagonists, feel more like mouthpieces for Picoult’s own beliefs than fully developed people. Picoult has an angle that prevents her “bad guys” from seeming genuine — often they read insincere, slimy and self-serving. The most appealing among them, Liddy and Max, come off as confused and manipulated by the sinister Pastor Clive and his followers.

If you were worried this wasn’t going to be sad enough to be a Picoult novel, Zoe’s work as a music therapist more than fills that void.

One subplot, of a suicidal teenage girl that Vanessa refers to early in the book, works particularly well (even if it has a suspiciously convenient tie-in to the main plot), but by and large the sections describing Zoe’s often terminal patients feel tacked-on and intended solely to target sentimentalists.

The book comes with a companion soundtrack of original music, which follows the narrative. It’s not bad music, but it whines and warbles a little much for my taste.

It’s a book that is interesting and worth reading, but don’t look to it for a complete exploration of the emotional complexity of embryo custody. “Sing You Home” gives readers a world where there is a right and wrong choice — perhaps a too simplistic representation of a complicated issue. The question for readers of this book isn’t who should get the embryos, but whether the court will decide correctly despite pressure from the other side.

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