In all the years I have studied Rhode Island courtrooms, I have never seen any witness swear on a Bible. But other details in Jodi Picoult's 18th novel, Sing You Home, ( Atria. 466 pages. $28) are more accurate portrayals of its Rhode Island setting -- from artificial birdsong at Kent County Courthouse to Italian cuisine on Federal Hill.
This novel comes with a compact disc of reflective songs written by Picoult and performed by Ellen Wilber, conveying the persona of music therapist Zoe Baxter. As the chapters unfold, a song list takes us through 10 tracks, much like Zoe's practice of asking clients, "What songs would be on a mix tape that describes you?"
Zoe's verve enlivens the story, as when the dementia-stricken former CEO of a Fortune 500 company interrupts her rendition of "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" by swinging at her. Her initial delight that he has "connected" gives way to his grief at his sadly altered state and her regret "for unlocking his blocked mind with music."
We learn of burdens on Zoe's husband, Max, who must produce sperm on demand in a fertility clinic until he can no longer endure the painful cycle of Zoe's miscarriages and her obsessive yearning for motherhood.
After their divorce, we witness conversions: Zoe falls in love with another woman, Vanessa. Max, who despised Christians, becomes one. An even greater conversion lies ahead.
As she has done before, Picoult sets up each chapter with a unique typeface representing the first-person voice of a single character. This method casts a large net over the life stories of her three lead actors, trawling their thoughts, so they are not cardboard stereotypes, but flexible and surprising.
As in Picoult's previous novels, all three characters converge in the courtroom. There, Max's pastor has spearheaded a fundamentalist crusade to challenge Zoe's right to her own fertilized eggs, which the pastor has named and claimed as "pre-born children."
The court spectacle has attracted zealots, much like Rhode Island's current struggle over recognizing same-sex marriage. Lawyers on both sides argue from the Bible and case law over the rights of gays and embryos.
It is signature Picoult fiction. Bullying and lies gain a life of their own in the courtroom: This detail is vintage Rhode Island.
Anne Grant writes about troubling family court custody decisions at custodyscam.blogspot.com, littlehostages.blogspot.com and elsewhere.