Songs of the Humpback Whale: A Novel in Five Voices

Songs of the Humpback Whale: A Novel in Five Voices

by Jodi Picoult


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Jodi Picoult’s powerful novel portrays an emotionally charged marriage that changes course in one explosive moment.

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743431019
Publisher: Washington Square Press
Publication date: 10/02/2001
Series: Wsp Readers Club
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 236,608
Product dimensions: 8.26(w) x 5.18(h) x 0.93(d)
Lexile: HL750L (what's this?)

About the Author

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-six 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


Hanover, New Hampshire

Date of Birth:

May 19, 1966

Place of Birth:

Nesconset, Long Island, NY


A.B. in Creative Writing, Princeton University; M.A. in Education, Harvard University

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

Reading Group Guide

Songs of the Humpback Whale
WSP Readers Guide
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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Songs of the Humpback Whale: A Novel in Five Voices 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 151 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
grandma200414 More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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!
buddyroo66 More than 1 year ago
Complete disappointment :(
pwee More than 1 year ago
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.
arenstro22 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Mom and daughter leave husband/father, take cross country trip to find themselves. find love and loss. Poor ending, doesn't match rest of the book.
scarvell on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is not one of my favorite Jodi Picoult books. The book is written in the voices of five characters, which I don't mind, it makes the book different and interesting. What I didn't like was the daughter telling things backwards (events in the story told from the end to the beginning) because you essentially knew what was going to happen at the end of the book before getting to it. I usually find the best part of a book is the ending and that's why I keep reading a book that isn't keeping my interests. I kept reading, hoping for a different ending, but it didn't happen. I don't feel like I wasted my time, but I still didn't find it as good as most of her other novels.
ladybug74 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is my least favorite of Jodi Picoult's books so far. All the talk by the husband about the humpback whales was kind of dry and boring to me. Not only is this story told from the point of view of 5 different characters, but it also switches back and forth in time so much that I was confused part of the time. There is a heading to tell the reader who is speaking before each chapter and there are dates at the beginning when it switches around in time. I just didn't enjoy this one as well as her other books.
shifrack00 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Not her best. Plot works, but the one voice told backwards wasn't well integrated with the forwards rest of the story.
DevourerOfBooks on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I usually adore Jodi Picoult's work, but this and her other very early books I just cannot get into very well. While I prefer this book to Harvesting the Heart, it was still somewhat slow and the characters were not quite as well developed as in some of her later novels. Still, the book was interesting, as her books always are.
carmarie on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I love Jodi Picoult! And although this wasn't one of my favorite of hers, I still have to give it to her!
gutkko on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I liked hearing the story from different perspectives. I did not like the way the story jumped through time. I¿ve read other stories where this is done and I¿ve liked them much better ¿ the jumps made sense, they flowed well and progressed the story well. The jumps in this book did not. The time shifts made the flow chaotic. While I wasn¿t thrilled with the `growth¿ of each character, everyone grows in their on way so I generally don¿t get ruffled too much by it, these people seemed to just go in one big useless circle-. The fact that the parents didn¿t even see that each time they had a fight and split the one who was most damaged was the daughter didn¿t show much growth at all.
melondon on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Extremely moving and honest.
Katymelrose on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Meh. That's the best I can come up with. I didn't like characters - not a single one. The jumping around through time is not particularly effective because it removes a lot of the suspense that could have been offered and the story, frankly, isn't quite good enough to make it work. There are some flashes of the type of writer Picoult will become though. Particularly at the end. Of course, there is no suspense to go along with it. Perhaps those people who enjoy reading the end of the book first will enjoy this more than I did.
mmignano11 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is not one of my favorites by Picoult. It is on the weak side as far as the writing and character development goes. The story line itself is fairly believable but I think Picoult fails to make her characters believable. For instance, Jane Jones, the main character is supposed to be the character that everyone circulates around but I don't feel convinced of that. Her strength is commented on by her brother, but I don't see her as anything but fairly ordinary. Her problems with her father are pretty common and not extreme so the fact that they have sich an effect on her life with her husband is hard to believe. The part of the story where she is traveling with Rebecca is humorous but I feel that Rebecca is never fully developed. Her relationship with Hadley is a series of weak vignette that leaves me questioning what her attraction for him is. She seems like a young girl with appropriate behavior for her age, not more mature as Hadley claims. Their relationship seems forced to fit the story line. The ending, while sad, does not pull all the loose ends together, although it makes the reader think it does. I would not recommend this in book or audiobook form as it does not deliver.
love2laf on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Quite a confusing and difficult read to start with. It's a narrative from different perspectives, and in different time sequences. Well worth sticking with, though, it was a good story, and I'm glad I read it. Not exactly a cheerful, happy read, but intriguing family life story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I wait
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
...But this one is my least favorite so far. The story telling jumps from character to character and from past to future events. I felt like the novel itself was a plot spoiler and that lessened my enjoyment of Picoult's beautiful writing considerably. Every chapter was anticlimatic; it was like reading the last page of a book first. Also I found the characters to be less than relatable and the information on whale songs was tremendously boring and textbook-like. My favorite Picoult novels include animals and learning about their behavoirs; Lone Wolf and Leaving Time were so masterful at this, that I assumed this book would follow suit. It did not. I still have to give three and a half stars because she simply is a wonderful writer whose work I never can seem to put down. I am measuring Jodi on her homerun masterpiece novels, so this doesn't quite cut muster. Still worth reading at the library. Don't spend the money on it, though. Twelve bucks for a Nook book is highway robbery.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
He walks in without a shirt on showing his golden tan. "Need help?"
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Groans ( you didint spell stuff right )
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Timepool at 'old mortality'. I'm done with her rper.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not the best was dissapointed at the end
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
lg22 More than 1 year ago
Had a hard time finishing this one.