A convicted murderer who may be a latter-day Messiah wants to donate his heart to the sister of one of his victims, in Picoult’s frantic 15th (Nineteen Minutes, 2007, etc.).
Picoult specializes in hot-button issues. This latest blockbuster-to-be stars New Hampshire’s first death-row inmate in decades, Shay Bourne, a 33-year-old carpenter and drifter convicted of murdering the police officer husband of his employer, June, and her seven-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. Eleven years later Shay is still awaiting execution by lethal injection. Suddenly, miracles start to happen around Shay—cell-block tap water turns to wine, an AIDS-stricken fellow inmate is cured, a pet bird and then a guard are resurrected from the dead. Shay’s spiritual adviser, Father Michael, is beginning to believe that Shay is a reincarnation of Christ, particularly when the uneducated man starts quoting key phrases from the Gnostic gospels. Michael hasn’t told Shay that he served on the jury that condemned him to death. June’s daughter Claire, in dire need of a heart transplant, is slowly dying. When Shay, obeying the Gnostic prescription to “bring forth what is within you,” offers, through his attorney, ACLU activist Maggie, to donate his heart, June is at first repelled. Practical obstacles also arise: A viable heart cannot be harvested from a lethally injected donor. So Maggie sues in Federal Court to require the state to hang Shay instead, on the grounds that his intended gift is integral to his religious beliefs. Shay’s execution looms, and then Father Michael learns more troubling news: Shay, who, like Jesus, didn’t defend himself at trial, may be innocent.
Clunky prose and long-winded dissertations on comparative religion can’t impede the breathless momentum of the Demon-Drop plot.