An uneven reworking of tabloid headlines: a young woman is charged with infanticide, and a hard-boiled attorney agrees to defend her. With one crucial distinction: the defendant is Amish.
In the Amish community of Paradise, Pennsylvania, 18-year-old Katie Fisher, unwed, is the chief suspect in the death by asphyxiation of a newborn found in the Fisher family’s barn. A medical exam reveals that Katie has just given birth, but she insists she has never been pregnant. Enter Ellie Hathaway, a 39-year-old (and single) Philadelphia defense attorney visiting her aunt Leda. Leda, also Amish, prevails upon an initially reluctant Ellie to defend Katie. Ellie moves in with the Fishers to prepare Katie’s defense, a device that allows Picoult (Keeping Faith, 1999, etc.) to juxtapose the devout Amish (or Plain Folk) and their spartan way of life with city-slicker Ellie. But as Ellie befriends Katie, unsettling inconsistencies in the latter’s story emerge. As in Rashomon, the truth proves elusive, shifting, and often unwelcome. Is Katie suffering from a genuine psychosis, repressing events too traumatic to remember? Or was she simply trying to conceal an affair and pregnancy she knew would have led to her being shunned by her own people? The drama echoes with conflicts in Ellie’s own life: her loudly ticking biological clock, the end of a tepid relationship with another attorney, and the resumption of a love affair with Coop, her college sweetheart-turned-psychologist (and eventual expert witness on Katie’s behalf). All, of course, will be tidily resolved by trial’s end.
Despite a provocative and topical premise, and a strong opening, Picoult fails this time, her seventh, to rise above paint-by-numbers formula. (Author tour)