Songs of the Humpback Whale: A Novel in Five Voices

( 137 )

Overview

Sometimes finding your own voice
is a matter of listening to the heart....

Jodi Picoult's powerful novel portrays an emotionally charged marriage that changes course in one explosive moment....For years, Jane Jones has lived in the shadow of her husband, renowned San Diego oceanographer Oliver Jones. But during an escalating argument, Jane turns on him with an alarming volatility. In anger and fear, Jane leaves with their teenage daughter, ...

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Songs of the Humpback Whale: A Novel in Five Voices

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Overview

Sometimes finding your own voice
is a matter of listening to the heart....

Jodi Picoult's powerful novel portrays an emotionally charged marriage that changes course in one explosive moment....For years, Jane Jones has lived in the shadow of her husband, renowned San Diego oceanographer Oliver Jones. But during an escalating argument, Jane turns on him with an alarming volatility. In anger and fear, Jane leaves with their teenage daughter, Rebecca, for a cross-country odyssey charted by letters from her brother Joley, guiding them to his Massachusetts apple farm, where surprising self-discoveries await. Now Oliver, an expert at tracking humpback whales across vast oceans, will search for his wife across a continent — and find a new way to see the world, his family, and himself: through her eyes.

This remarkable and vibrant first novel interweaves five rich narrative voices to tell a story of love, pain, and self-discovery. A powerful, sensitive work that questions how songs are passed down between male speakers and examines the tradition of listening that women unconsciously pass on to their daughters.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Ann Hood Author of Do Not Go Gentle Rich and charming....Jodi Picoult casts a spell with her beautiful imagery and language. Reading this book is a delight.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
As Picoult uses five voices to tell a complex tale of love, friendship and a Faulknerian family history, her mastery of language strongly individuates her characters. The primary voice in this accomplished first novel belongs to Jane Jones, a speech pathologist living in San Diego, Calif. Other narrators are her daughter Rebecca; her husband, Oliver, a marine biologist renowned for his research on the songs of humpback whales; her brother Joley; and her lover, Sam. When an argument between Jane and Oliver culminates in her striking him, Jane is shattered. A childhood victim of physical and sexual abuse, Jane has tried to submerge her memories, but this outbreak of violence causes her to reexamine her life. On a cross-country automobile trip, Jane and Rebecca travel to Stow, Mass., where Joley is living and where each woman meets the man she believes is her destiny. Jane relates the events that occur from San Diego to Stow, while Rebecca tells the story in reverse, flashing back from the climax. Their stories intersect in an Iowa cornfield that still bears the wreckage of the airliner on which then-three-year-old Rebecca was being sent back to her father during her parents' earlier separation; she was one of five survivors. This powerful and affecting novel demonstrates that there are as many truths to a story as there are people to tell it. (Apr.)
Library Journal
This uniquely constructed first novel, the literary equivalent of counterpoint in music, is told in five voices whose polyphonic development delineates a multifaceted love story on different levels for different individuals. These voices belong to five characters--Jane, who has sacrificed her life to her oceanographer husband's career; her daughter, Rebecca, whom Jane seeks to protect; and three very different men in their lives. As Jane heads east from San Diego with her daughter, having abandoned her husband to his whale tapes, the characters' contrapuntal recollections offer psychological insights into their lives. These insights lead to growth, second chances, and love. Charming and poignant, Picoult's novel is even better after a second reading. For public libraries.-- Ellen R. Cohen, Rockville, Md.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743431019
  • Publisher: Washington Square Press
  • Publication date: 10/2/2001
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 139,270
  • Product dimensions: 8.26 (w) x 5.18 (h) x 0.93 (d)

Meet the Author

Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult received an AB in creative writing from Princeton and a master’s degree in education from Harvard. The recipient of the 2003 New England Book Award for her entire body of work, she is the author of twenty-one novels, including the #1 New York Times bestsellers House Rules, Handle With Care, Change of Heart, and My Sister’s Keeper, for which she received the American Library Association’s Margaret Alexander Edwards Award. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and three children. Visit her website at JodiPicoult.com.

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    1. Hometown:
      Hanover, New Hampshire
    1. Date of Birth:
      May 19, 1966
    2. Place of Birth:
      Nesconset, Long Island, NY
    1. Education:
      A.B. in Creative Writing, Princeton University; M.A. in Education, Harvard University
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Jane

The night before I got married I woke up, screaming, from my sleep. My parents came into the room and put their arms around me; they patted my head and smoothed my hair, fine, and I still couldn't stop screaming. Even with my mouth closed, I continued — the high, shrill note of a nocturnal animal.

My parents were beside themselves. We lived in a button-down suburb of Boston, and we were waking up the neighbors one by one. I watched the lights come on in different houses — blue and yellow, blinking like Christmas — and wondered what was happening to me.

This wasn't a common occurrence. I was barely nineteen, a straight-A student fresh out of Wellesley College and in 1976 that was still an accomplishment. I was marrying the man of my dreams in a prototypical white clapboard New England church, and the reception — a lavish one with white-gloved waiters and Beluga caviar — was going to be held in my parents' backyard. I had a job waiting for me when I returned from my honeymoon. There was no foreseeable problem that I could articulate.

To this day, I don't know why that happened to me. As mysteriously as it all started, the screaming went away and the next morning I married Oliver Jones — the Oliver Jones — and we just about lived happily ever after.

I am the only speech pathologist in this town, which means I get shuttled back and forth to different elementary schools in the San Diego suburbs. It's not such a big deal now that Rebecca is old enough to take care of herself, and since Oliver is away so much of the time, I have less to do at home. I enjoy my work but certainly not the way Oliver enjoys his work. Oliver would be content to live in a sailcloth tent on the coast of Argentina, watching his whales sound in warm water.

My job is to help children find their voices — kinds that come to school mute, or with lisps or cleft palates. At first, they come into my little makeshift classroom one at a time and they shuffle their Keds on the floor and shyly glance at the formidable recording equipment and they are absolutely silent. Sometimes I stay silent too, until the student breaks the ice and asks what he or she is supposed to do. Some students cover their mouths with their hands at this point; I have even seen one little girl cry: they cannot stand to hear their own voices, pieces of themselves that they have been told are ugly. My role is to show them there's someone who is ready to listen to what they have to say and the way they have to say it.

When I was seven, I tell these kids, I used to whistle every time I said the letter S. In school I got teased and because of this I did not have many friends and I did not talk very much. One day my teacher told the class we'd be putting on a play and that everyone had to participate. I was so nervous about reading aloud in front of everyone else that I pretended I was sick. I faked a fever by holding the thermometer up to a light bulb when my mother left the room. I was allowed to stay home for three days, until my teacher called, and my mother figured out what I was doing. When I went back to school, my teacher called me aside. All of the parts had been taken in the play, she said, but she had saved a special role for me, offstage. I was going to be the Manager of Sound Effects, just like in the movies. I practiced with my teacher every day after school for three weeks. In time I discovered I could become a fire engine, a bird, a mouse, a bee, and many other things because of my lisp. When the night of the play came, I was given a black robe and a microphone. The other students got to be just one part, but I became the voice of several animals and machines. And my father was so proud of me; it was the only time I remember him telling me so.

That's the story I give at those Coastal Studies cocktail parties Oliver and I go to. We rub shoulders with people who'll give grant money. We introduce ourselves as Dr. and Dr. Jones, although I'm still ABD. We sneak out when everyone is going to sit down to the main course, and we run to the car and make fun of people's sequined dresses and dinner jackets. Inside, I curl up against Oliver as he drives, and I listen to him tell me stories I have heard a million times before — about an era when you could spot whales in every ocean.

In spite of it all, there's just something about Oliver. You know what I'm talking about — he was the first man who truly took my breath away, and sometimes he still can. He's the one person I feel comfortable enough with to share a home, a life, a child. He can take me back fifteen years with a smile. In spite of differences, Oliver and I have Oliver and I.

In this one school where I spend Tuesdays, my office is a janitorial closet. Sometime after noon the secretary of the school knocks on the door and tells me Dr. Jones is on the phone. Now this is truly a surprise. Oliver is at home this week, putting together some research, but he usually has neither the time nor the inclination to call me. He never asks what school I head to on a given day. "Tell him I'm with a student," I say, and I push the play button on my tape recorder. Vowel sounds fill the room: AAAAA EEEEEIIIII. I know Oliver too well to play his games. OOOOO UUUUU. Oh, you. Oh, you.

Oliver is Very Famous. He wasn't when we met, but today he is one of the leading researchers of whales and whale behavior. He has made discoveries that have rocked the scientific world. He is so well known that people take pictures of our mailbox, as if to say, "I've been to the place where Dr. Jones lives." Oliver's most important research has been on whale songs. It appears that whole groupings of whales sing the same ones — Oliver has recorded this — and pass the songs down over generations. I don't understand much about his work, but that is just as much my fault as Oliver's. He never tells me about the ideas burning in his mind anymore, and I sometimes forget to ask.

Naturally Oliver's career has come first. He moved us to California to take a job with the San Diego Center for Coastal Studies, only to find out East Coast humpbacks were his true passion. The minute I got to San Diego I wanted to leave, but I didn't tell Oliver that. For better or for worse, I had said. Oliver got to fly back to Boston and I stayed here with an infant, in a climate that is always summer, that never smells like snow.

I'm not taking his phone call.

I'm not taking this again, period.

It is one thing for me to play second fiddle; it is another thing to see it happen to Rebecca. At fourteen she has the ability to take a survey of her life from a higher vantage point — an ability I haven't mastered at thirty-five — and I do not believe she likes what she is seeing. When Oliver is home, which is rare, he spends more time in his study than with us. He doesn't take an interest in anything that isn't tied to the seas. The way he treats me is one matter: we have a history; I hold myself accountable for falling in love in the first place. But Rebecca will not take him on faith, just because he is her father. Rebecca expects.

I've heard about teenagers who run away, or get pregnant or drop out of school, and I have heard these things linked to problems at home. So I offered Oliver an ultimatum. Rebecca's fifteenth birthday next week coincides with Oliver's planned visit to a humpback breeding ground off the coast of South America. Oliver intends to go. I told him to be here.

What I wanted to say is: This is your daughter. Even if we have grown so far apart that we don't recognize each other when we pass, we have this life, this block of time, and what do you think about that?

One reason I keep my mouth shut is Rebecca's accident. It was the result of a fight with Oliver, and I've been doing my best to keep something like that from happening again. I don't remember what that argument was about, but I gave him a piece of my mind and he hit me. I picked up my baby (Rebecca was three and a half at the time) and flew to my parents. I told my mother I was going to divorce Oliver; he was a lunatic and on top of this he'd hit me. Oliver called and said he didn't care what I did but I had no right to keep his daughter. He threatened legal action. So I took Rebecca to the airport and told her, "I'm sorry, honey, but I can't stand that man." I bribed a stewardess with a hundred dollars to take her on the plane, and it crashed in Des Moines. The next thing I knew I was standing in a farmer's cornfield, watching the wreckage smoke. It still seemed to be moving. The wind sang through the plane's limbs, voices I couldn't place. And behind me was Rebecca, singed but intact, one of five survivors, curled in her father's arms. She has Oliver's yellow hair and freckles. Like him, she's beautiful. Oliver and I looked at each other and I knew right then why fate had made me fall in love with a man like Oliver Jones: some combination of him and of me had created a child who could charm even unyielding earth.

Copyright © 1992 by Jodi Picoult

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First Chapter

Chapter One: Jane

The night before I got married I woke up, screaming, from my sleep. My parents came into the room and put their arms around me; they patted my head and smoothed my hair, fine, and I still couldn't stop screaming. Even with my mouth closed, I continued -- the high, shrill note of a nocturnal animal.

My parents were beside themselves. We lived in a button-down suburb of Boston, and we were waking up the neighbors one by one. I watched the lights come on in different houses -- blue and yellow, blinking like Christmas -- and wondered what was happening to me.

This wasn't a common occurrence. I was barely nineteen, a straight-A student fresh out of Wellesley College and in 1976 that was still an accomplishment. I was marrying the man of my dreams in a prototypical white clapboard New England church, and the reception -- a lavish one with white-gloved waiters and Beluga caviar -- was going to be held in my parents' backyard. I had a job waiting for me when I returned from my honeymoon. There was no foreseeable problem that I could articulate.

To this day, I don't know why that happened to me. As mysteriously as it all started, the screaming went away and the next morning I married Oliver Jones -- the Oliver Jones -- and we just about lived happily ever after.

I am the only speech pathologist in this town, which means I get shuttled back and forth to different elementary schools in the San Diego suburbs. It's not such a big deal now that Rebecca is old enough to take care of herself, and since Oliver is away so much of the time, I have less to do at home. I enjoy my work but certainly not the way Oliver enjoys his work. Oliver would be content to live in a sailcloth tent on the coast of Argentina, watching his whales sound in warm water.

My job is to help children find their voices -- kinds that come to school mute, or with lisps or cleft palates. At first, they come into my little makeshift classroom one at a time and they shuffle their Keds on the floor and shyly glance at the formidable recording equipment and they are absolutely silent. Sometimes I stay silent too, until the student breaks the ice and asks what he or she is supposed to do. Some students cover their mouths with their hands at this point; I have even seen one little girl cry: they cannot stand to hear their own voices, pieces of themselves that they have been told are ugly. My role is to show them there's someone who is ready to listen to what they have to say and the way they have to say it.

When I was seven, I tell these kids, I used to whistle every time I said the letter S. In school I got teased and because of this I did not have many friends and I did not talk very much. One day my teacher told the class we'd be putting on a play and that everyone had to participate. I was so nervous about reading aloud in front of everyone else that I pretended I was sick. I faked a fever by holding the thermometer up to a light bulb when my mother left the room. I was allowed to stay home for three days, until my teacher called, and my mother figured out what I was doing. When I went back to school, my teacher called me aside. All of the parts had been taken in the play, she said, but she had saved a special role for me, offstage. I was going to be the Manager of Sound Effects, just like in the movies. I practiced with my teacher every day after school for three weeks. In time I discovered I could become a fire engine, a bird, a mouse, a bee, and many other things because of my lisp. When the night of the play came, I was given a black robe and a microphone. The other students got to be just one part, but I became the voice of several animals and machines. And my father was so proud of me; it was the only time I remember him telling me so.

That's the story I give at those Coastal Studies cocktail parties Oliver and I go to. We rub shoulders with people who'll give grant money. We introduce ourselves as Dr. and Dr. Jones, although I'm still ABD. We sneak out when everyone is going to sit down to the main course, and we run to the car and make fun of people's sequined dresses and dinner jackets. Inside, I curl up against Oliver as he drives, and I listen to him tell me stories I have heard a million times before -- about an era when you could spot whales in every ocean.

In spite of it all, there's just something about Oliver. You know what I'm talking about -- he was the first man who truly took my breath away, and sometimes he still can. He's the one person I feel comfortable enough with to share a home, a life, a child. He can take me back fifteen years with a smile. In spite of differences, Oliver and I have Oliver and I.

In this one school where I spend Tuesdays, my office is a janitorial closet. Sometime after noon the secretary of the school knocks on the door and tells me Dr. Jones is on the phone. Now this is truly a surprise. Oliver is at home this week, putting together some research, but he usually has neither the time nor the inclination to call me. He never asks what school I head to on a given day. "Tell him I'm with a student," I say, and I push the play button on my tape recorder. Vowel sounds fill the room: AAAAA EEEEEIIIII. I know Oliver too well to play his games. OOOOO UUUUU. Oh, you. Oh, you.

Oliver is Very Famous. He wasn't when we met, but today he is one of the leading researchers of whales and whale behavior. He has made discoveries that have rocked the scientific world. He is so well known that people take pictures of our mailbox, as if to say, "I've been to the place where Dr. Jones lives." Oliver's most important research has been on whale songs. It appears that whole groupings of whales sing the same ones -- Oliver has recorded this -- and pass the songs down over generations. I don't understand much about his work, but that is just as much my fault as Oliver's. He never tells me about the ideas burning in his mind anymore, and I sometimes forget to ask.

Naturally Oliver's career has come first. He moved us to California to take a job with the San Diego Center for Coastal Studies, only to find out East Coast humpbacks were his true passion. The minute I got to San Diego I wanted to leave, but I didn't tell Oliver that. For better or for worse, I had said. Oliver got to fly back to Boston and I stayed here with an infant, in a climate that is always summer, that never smells like snow.

I'm not taking his phone call.

I'm not taking this again, period.

It is one thing for me to play second fiddle; it is another thing to see it happen to Rebecca. At fourteen she has the ability to take a survey of her life from a higher vantage point -- an ability I haven't mastered at thirty-five -- and I do not believe she likes what she is seeing. When Oliver is home, which is rare, he spends more time in his study than with us. He doesn't take an interest in anything that isn't tied to the seas. The way he treats me is one matter: we have a history; I hold myself accountable for falling in love in the first place. But Rebecca will not take him on faith, just because he is her father. Rebecca expects.

I've heard about teenagers who run away, or get pregnant or drop out of school, and I have heard these things linked to problems at home. So I offered Oliver an ultimatum. Rebecca's fifteenth birthday next week coincides with Oliver's planned visit to a humpback breeding ground off the coast of South America. Oliver intends to go. I told him to be here.

What I wanted to say is: This is your daughter. Even if we have grown so far apart that we don't recognize each other when we pass, we have this life, this block of time, and what do you think about that?

One reason I keep my mouth shut is Rebecca's accident. It was the result of a fight with Oliver, and I've been doing my best to keep something like that from happening again. I don't remember what that argument was about, but I gave him a piece of my mind and he hit me. I picked up my baby (Rebecca was three and a half at the time) and flew to my parents. I told my mother I was going to divorce Oliver; he was a lunatic and on top of this he'd hit me. Oliver called and said he didn't care what I did but I had no right to keep his daughter. He threatened legal action. So I took Rebecca to the airport and told her, "I'm sorry, honey, but I can't stand that man." I bribed a stewardess with a hundred dollars to take her on the plane, and it crashed in Des Moines. The next thing I knew I was standing in a farmer's cornfield, watching the wreckage smoke. It still seemed to be moving. The wind sang through the plane's limbs, voices I couldn't place. And behind me was Rebecca, singed but intact, one of five survivors, curled in her father's arms. She has Oliver's yellow hair and freckles. Like him, she's beautiful. Oliver and I looked at each other and I knew right then why fate had made me fall in love with a man like Oliver Jones: some combination of him and of me had created a child who could charm even unyielding earth.

Copyright © 1992 by Jodi Picoult

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Introduction

Songs of the Humpback Whale

WSP Readers Guide

Introduction

Jodi Picoult's richly literary novel Songs of the Humpback Whale tells the story of a fragile family and one woman's voyage towards self-discovery. When an explosive argument with her husband prompts Jane and her daughter Rebecca to abruptly leave their California home, the two women head east armed with little other than a few dollars, the clothes on their backs, and their love for one another. Traversing their way across the United States, following the directional clues provided to them by Jane's brother Joley, Jane and Rebecca inch their way toward Massachusetts while Oliver, an expert whale tracker, follows close behind his wife and daughter.

When Jane and Rebecca arrive at a Massachusetts apple orchard, they each meet new people who will challenge them and force them to reconsider their life choices. Sam, a small-town apple farmer, pushes Jane to unveil the secrets of her past, finally enabling her to open her heart in the present. When Rebecca witnesses her mother and Sam's burgeoning love affair, she finds solace in Hadley, who offers her the support and nurturing she has so often yearned for from her own parents. Once Oliver arrives at the orchard to reclaim his family, Jane must finally decide whether or not to abandon her newfound love in order to return to California and fulfill her responsibilities to her husband and her daughter. It is only after a tragic accident that the Jones family can finally return home, together again but forever changed.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

1. Discuss the novel's structure. How did the alternatingvoices enhance or detract from the reading experience for you? Did you find that the characters' differing accounts of the events of the novel added to the dramatic tension, and how so? Similarly, Rebecca is the only character to narrate the novel's events backwards chronologically. How does this affect the reading experience?

2. So much of the novel is about voice and people finding themselves through their voices — Jane is a speech therapist, Oliver tracks whale songs, Joley's words guide Jane and Rebecca across the country. Which relationships in the novel are founded on spoken connections and which are based on something other than language? How are these relationships different? How do these different relationships affect the characters?

3. When mentioning his research, Oliver proposes that the personal histories of whales — "who the whale is, where he has been sighted, with whom he has been sighted — tell us something about why he sings the way he does" (9). Discuss how each of the characters in the novel are shaped by their past?

4. The relationship between Jane and Rebecca is one of the most complex in the novel. Although Jane is Rebecca's mother, it often seems that Rebecca is the more mature person — Hadley even tells Sam that Rebecca takes "better care of her mother than the other way around" (312). Rebecca similarly comments that she and Jane are "more like equals" (107). Discuss their relationship. Why do you think they relate to one another this way?

5. Although it is Rebecca who packs up, gets in the car, and urges her mother to run away from Oliver, she also misses her father and her home while she and her mother are traveling across the country. Speculate on what Rebecca really wants for each of her parents. Do you think she wants to return to California? Why or why not?

6. The relationship between Joley and Jane is one of the most meaningful in the novel. Although Jane spent most of her childhood protecting Joley, it is Joley who cares for Jane in her adult life. Discuss the bond between them. What is it based on? Does Joley's love for Jane seem illicit at times, why or why not?

7. Joley tells Jane and Rebecca that he will write them across the country, sending them "to places he thinks they need to go." Discuss the different geographic locations of their voyage. Why do you think Joley sends them to each place he does? How does each location affect them?

8. Sam comments that "if you leave things to their natural course, they go bad." Discuss Sam and his life choices. In what ways has he struggled against the natural course of his life, and in which ways has he accepted that he is living the life he was destined to?

9. When Sam and Jane first meet, they each assume certain things about one another — Jane assumes that Sam is a simple farmer, and Sam assumes that Jane is no different from other wealthy Newton girls. In what ways do Sam and Jane live up to one another's assumptions, and in what ways do they each defy the other's preconceived notions?

10. Chapters 39, 40, and 41 offer Rebecca, Jane's, and Oliver's different perspectives of the plane crash. Although these chapters all begin the same way: "Midwest Airlines flight 997 crashed on September 21, 1978, in What Cheer, Iowa — a farming town sixty miles south east of Des Moines," they each offer three different perspectives of the same event. Discuss these differing perspectives. What do the differences and similarities reveal about each character and the impact that event had on the rest of their lives?

11. At the site of the plane crash, Oliver finally finds Jane and Rebecca. Though he is sitting close enough to touch them, he finds that he cannot bring himself to announce his presence. What is Oliver thinking? How does this moment motivate him to change? By the end of the novel, has he successfully transformed himself?

12. When Oliver goes to save Marble, the whale that is tangled in nets in Gloucester, it seems that he is temporarily calling off his search for his wife and daughter. How did you react to his decision? Do you think that Oliver was motivated only by a desire to get on camera and to make a public plea for Jane and Rebecca, or did you think that he may have been reverting to his old ways?

13. At the end of the novel, Jane abandons her love for Sam, choosing instead to honor her responsibilities to her husband and daughter. How did you react to that choice? Did you find it surprising? Frustrating? What clues did Picoult provide throughout the novel to signal that Jane would eventually make this choice?

14. Jane comments that "you can take dead trees in an orchard and bring them back to life" (346). Discuss the final moments of the novel. In what ways have Jane, Rebecca, and Oliver changed? Do you think that the conclusion of the novel is ultimately hopeful about the family's future? Why or why not?

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Reading Group Guide


Songs of the Humpback Whale

WSP Readers Guide

Introduction

Jodi Picoult's richly literary novel Songs of the Humpback Whale tells the story of a fragile family and one woman's voyage towards self-discovery. When an explosive argument with her husband prompts Jane and her daughter Rebecca to abruptly leave their California home, the two women head east armed with little other than a few dollars, the clothes on their backs, and their love for one another. Traversing their way across the United States, following the directional clues provided to them by Jane's brother Joley, Jane and Rebecca inch their way toward Massachusetts while Oliver, an expert whale tracker, follows close behind his wife and daughter.

When Jane and Rebecca arrive at a Massachusetts apple orchard, they each meet new people who will challenge them and force them to reconsider their life choices. Sam, a small-town apple farmer, pushes Jane to unveil the secrets of her past, finally enabling her to open her heart in the present. When Rebecca witnesses her mother and Sam's burgeoning love affair, she finds solace in Hadley, who offers her the support and nurturing she has so often yearned for from her own parents. Once Oliver arrives at the orchard to reclaim his family, Jane must finally decide whether or not to abandon her newfound love in order to return to California and fulfill her responsibilities to her husband and her daughter. It is only after a tragic accident that the Jones family can finally return home, together again but forever changed.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

1. Discuss the novel's structure. How did the alternating voices enhance or detract from the reading experience for you? Did you find that the characters' differing accounts of the events of the novel added to the dramatic tension, and how so? Similarly, Rebecca is the only character to narrate the novel's events backwards chronologically. How does this affect the reading experience?

2. So much of the novel is about voice and people finding themselves through their voices -- Jane is a speech therapist, Oliver tracks whale songs, Joley's words guide Jane and Rebecca across the country. Which relationships in the novel are founded on spoken connections and which are based on something other than language? How are these relationships different? How do these different relationships affect the characters?

3. When mentioning his research, Oliver proposes that the personal histories of whales -- "who the whale is, where he has been sighted, with whom he has been sighted -- tell us something about why he sings the way he does" (9). Discuss how each of the characters in the novel are shaped by their past?

4. The relationship between Jane and Rebecca is one of the most complex in the novel. Although Jane is Rebecca's mother, it often seems that Rebecca is the more mature person -- Hadley even tells Sam that Rebecca takes "better care of her mother than the other way around" (312). Rebecca similarly comments that she and Jane are "more like equals" (107). Discuss their relationship. Why do you think they relate to one another this way?

5. Although it is Rebecca who packs up, gets in the car, and urges her mother to run away from Oliver, she also misses her father and her home while she and her mother are traveling across the country. Speculate on what Rebecca really wants for each of her parents. Do you think she wants to return to California? Why or why not?

6. The relationship between Joley and Jane is one of the most meaningful in the novel. Although Jane spent most of her childhood protecting Joley, it is Joley who cares for Jane in her adult life. Discuss the bond between them. What is it based on? Does Joley's love for Jane seem illicit at times, why or why not?

7. Joley tells Jane and Rebecca that he will write them across the country, sending them "to places he thinks they need to go." Discuss the different geographic locations of their voyage. Why do you think Joley sends them to each place he does? How does each location affect them?

8. Sam comments that "if you leave things to their natural course, they go bad." Discuss Sam and his life choices. In what ways has he struggled against the natural course of his life, and in which ways has he accepted that he is living the life he was destined to?

9. When Sam and Jane first meet, they each assume certain things about one another -- Jane assumes that Sam is a simple farmer, and Sam assumes that Jane is no different from other wealthy Newton girls. In what ways do Sam and Jane live up to one another's assumptions, and in what ways do they each defy the other's preconceived notions?

10. Chapters 39, 40, and 41 offer Rebecca, Jane's, and Oliver's different perspectives of the plane crash. Although these chapters all begin the same way: "Midwest Airlines flight 997 crashed on September 21, 1978, in What Cheer, Iowa -- a farming town sixty miles south east of Des Moines," they each offer three different perspectives of the same event. Discuss these differing perspectives. What do the differences and similarities reveal about each character and the impact that event had on the rest of their lives?

11. At the site of the plane crash, Oliver finally finds Jane and Rebecca. Though he is sitting close enough to touch them, he finds that he cannot bring himself to announce his presence. What is Oliver thinking? How does this moment motivate him to change? By the end of the novel, has he successfully transformed himself?

12. When Oliver goes to save Marble, the whale that is tangled in nets in Gloucester, it seems that he is temporarily calling off his search for his wife and daughter. How did you react to his decision? Do you think that Oliver was motivated only by a desire to get on camera and to make a public plea for Jane and Rebecca, or did you think that he may have been reverting to his old ways?

13. At the end of the novel, Jane abandons her love for Sam, choosing instead to honor her responsibilities to her husband and daughter. How did you react to that choice? Did you find it surprising? Frustrating? What clues did Picoult provide throughout the novel to signal that Jane would eventually make this choice?

14. Jane comments that "you can take dead trees in an orchard and bring them back to life" (346). Discuss the final moments of the novel. In what ways have Jane, Rebecca, and Oliver changed? Do you think that the conclusion of the novel is ultimately hopeful about the family's future? Why or why not?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 137 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(33)

4 Star

(36)

3 Star

(28)

2 Star

(27)

1 Star

(13)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 137 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 6, 2010

    A bit disappointing

    I love some of Picoult's other works, so I tried this one. Maybe it's just me, but reading the same story 5 times - even from 5 different perspectives - was boring. I found myself thinking SO many times - but I know this already ... get on with the story. The last half of the book I just skimmed through to see if there was anything relevant to the plot. I won't give up on Picoult though. I plan to read all of her works because I loved the first three I read: My Sister's Keeper (I read this before I even knew a movie was coming out.), Change of Heart (really LOVED this one), and Plain Truth.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 17, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Soooooo Disappointed

    I have read most of Jodi's books, devouring them with a few days and have loved them all.... That is.... until now. I had to force myself to get through it. At first I liked the idea that it was written in reverse order during Rebecca's narratives, but after a few chapters I found it kind of pointless. I really did not enjoy this book at all. I don't understand why Hadley had to die. In the end, both mother and daughter are not with the man that she loves.

    4 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 7, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    song of the humpback whale

    That was a hard book for me to get into. I found getting very interested in sisters keeper and I couldn't put it down and the suicide pact that was another I had a hard time putting down.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 26, 2007

    Interesting Story but with Unconvincing characters

    I like Jodi Picoult novels--for the most part--but this one was lacking. Jane, married at a young age to Oliver, a marine biologist, is stifled by his years of apathy toward his marriage and child. Things come to a head shortly before their daughter, Rebecca's 15th birthday, when Jane, upon learning her husband once again plans to be away working on that day, snaps and slaps her husband (bringing to her consciousness her history of seeing her own father abuse his wife and family) and she takes off with her daughter across the country from San Diego to see her brother who works on an apple farm in Massachusetts. A whiz at tracking the migration of humpback whales, Oliver follows a scientifically calculated pursuit of his family as Jane and Rebecca follow a far more meandering route (directed by letters from Jane's brother Joley)to their final destination. Along the way, each of the characters share their experiences about their trip east, (Rebecca's experience told in an annoying and at times confusing backward tale) how they grow and change, and about the ultimately devastating events that happen after they reach the farm. As is too often the case with Picoult novels, she writes a truly interesting story but with an ethereal quality about relationships that is over-the-top unbelievable. Her descriptions of a very close emotional bond between Jane and her brother Joley, reads as borderline incestuous. Jane's relationship with her daughter reads at times the same way--too close for comfort. (Why, for example, does Jane feel a need twice in this novel to put her hands on her daughter's breasts? If it were a father doing this, it would be child molestation!) Over the course of five days, we are led to believe that an at first prickly relationship between Jane and the orchard owner, Sam, suddenly becomes a sexual relationship between soul mates. I've got news for both of them--he's a diversion. And a improper sexual relationship between fifteen year old Rebecca and 25-year old Hadley is really okay, because the girl is mature beyond her years. Of course, she isn't--as is made quite clear when she willingly climbs into a truck to hitchhike with two men who have all but said straight out they plan to take advantage of her sexually (if only all would-be rapists would reveal their hand so quickly!). The problem is that it is difficult to like any of the characters--perhaps with the exception of Rebecca, who is just plain naive--to enough extent to route for anyone. Neither Jane nor her daughter seem to have the maturity to think about their actions beyond the here and now. The same seems to go for Oliver, until he experiences some sort of a mid-trip 'awakening' and realizes he really does love his wife after all but hasn't always shown it--duh! Jane is just plain selfish and inconsiderate. She uses her newly attained status as Sam's girlfriend to demand he let a long-time trusted employee go. Need anyone remind her who was the uninvited guest at this orchard? Again, this is a good story, and if you are a romantic at heart who wants to read something meatier than romance novels, then this is a good book for you. So long as you don't get caught up in the believability of the characters, you'll enjoy this read.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 15, 2013

    Touching

    I usually don't write reviews but after reading all of the negative reviews and then reading this book myself, I feel compelled to write one. In my opinion, this was a very touching novel that really hit home for me. Although I didn't personally deal with abuse growing up, I am married with 2 children and have gone through losing myself and leaving my home with my children to rediscover myself. This book hit really close to home for me. I love how it gave everyone's perspective! It was a little slow in parts but I found myself crying like a baby at the end, as I have done in all of her books that I have read. Definatly another excellent read by a brilliant author!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 17, 2012

    Complete disappointment :(

    Complete disappointment :(

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 26, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    A thought provoking novel on change of heart

    this novel follows a broken family in desperate need of repair, placing the views of each person (the mother, father, and the daughtor) into their own unique passages. Jane, the mother, after having hit her husband Oliver, flees across America with her daughtor, Rebecca, in the direction of her closely knit brother, Joley, at the apple orchard where he works. Along the way, mother and daughtor are forced to relive active memories that they have so long attempted to forget. Meanwhile,the father, Oliver, is attempting to find his family with his grand tracking skills, gained from experience in tracking humpback whales, at frist being rather smug that finding them would be a simple and easy task. As the novel continues, bonds are created and broken, as each person finds who he/she really is and the new person that they have become.

    A really good, thought provoking novel, as is Jodi Picoult's trademark, and completely engrossing once you find out that Rebecca is backtracking through time. If you "stick with it", you will most definitely find that it was worth it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 5, 2013

    Here is a song for all ya whale fans out there

    INTRO

    OOOOOOOOOOOO...
    Chorus:
    Oowoowoooooooooorwwwwwwaaaaaaoooooooooooouuuuupppppeeeeeewwwooowwwewwooooorrrpowwwwwwoooooooooeeeeeeyyytyuoew
    Reg.
    Owowwwouuuippppppeerowaaaaaaaaaouperrerereretowwooooooooooooooooownnnnnnnyyyyyyyeeeeeooooooowwwwwweeeewweeweweweoweoew
    Chorus:
    (What the chorus was , page up)
    LAST PART:
    yooowwwweewreaoweroooppppouuuuiortreeewwwwweeeeeeewwwwwoooowwwouuupppeeeuwuwuwwwwwwu


    If you "like" my song, please review back titled Mademoisselle Fifi Pompadour or MPF ( all caps ) and tellme. My nook name is Fiara. ( FEE-AIR-U ) See ya!! Bye (;(:

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 15, 2013

    N

    Not the best was dissapointed at the end

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted July 24, 2013

    Had a hard time finishing this one.

    Had a hard time finishing this one.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 16, 2012

    B

    B

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 14, 2012

    Easy Read, but a must!

    Jodi Picoult's, "Songs of the Humpback Whale" is not what I first expected in what the title expressed.Instead it tis the story of a mother who takes her child across country to escape the abuse of her husband. She is led across our fantastic country by the letters of her younger brother and the memories that her brings back to life for her, to help heal her, and also because she has never driven outside the confines of the western coast. the book is about theamazing journey of the mother and daughter experiencing life together and when they arrive in Massachussetts, the mother meets an amazing man who teaches her what Love is really all about. The father finnaly cathes up to them and a horrific accident brings them all to their senses. The mother and child return with the father to the west coast with a renewed sense of who they are and whee they shooud head in the future.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 12, 2012

    Phenomenal

    Another great story by Jodi Picoult. Such a beautiful story of love and loss. The complexity if the characters leaves you with a set of new friends and yearning to learn more.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 6, 2012

    Hard to follow

    This book jumps around years forward, years back, and it's not my favorite. In fact, it's my least favorite Jodi Picoult book and I'm a huge fan of hers.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 9, 2011

    Humph...

    Disappointing after her other books.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted September 12, 2011

    Good

    Her books get better as they go. This is a good read with an intetesting telling.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted July 28, 2011

    An Okay book

    I thought the ended was horrible but the overall story was good

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  • Posted July 19, 2011

    Sadly, disappointing.

    Disappointing and uninteresting to read and re-read the same story over and over again five times from different perspectives. The story did not move along very well and I found myself hoping and reading in order to get to the next interesting part. Sadly, the interesting parts were few and far between. I was really hoping for a substantial ending that would justify the time commitment I had made to the novel. Sadly, I was disappointed.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 8, 2011

    Slow, slow, slow

    Worst of her books, and I am a fan of her books

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted June 26, 2011

    Wonderful book brilliantly told

    My only complaint is that throughout words are run together. Its very poorly scanned - needs many corrections!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 137 Customer Reviews

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