Jack St. Bride went from being a well-respected teacher at a girls' prep school to a pariah in a heartbeat, when a student wrongly accused him of having an inappropriate sexual relationship with her. Charged with statutory rape and facing several years in prison, Jack's defense attorney suggested that he take a plea bargain instead of going to trial. Although accepting responsibility for a crime he didn't commit did not sit well with Jack, after carefully considering the alternative, he decided to take the deal. Now eight months later, Jack has been released from jail and is preparing to start his life over. He randomly chooses the small town of Salem Falls, where nobody knows him, and gets a job as a dishwasher at the local diner.
Diner owner, Addie Peabody, catches Jack's eye, but after what he just went through he doesn't dare initiate a relationship. Instead he tries to keep his distance, but soon Addie's sunny personality and gentle demeanor break through Jack's aloofness, making him realize how much he's missed having a woman in his life. Romance blossoms between the pair. When word gets out about Jack's past and half the town gangs up on him, Addie steadfastly stands by his side even though tragic events from her own past give her every reason not to trust him. But when another teenage girl from Salem Falls, the daughter of a powerful local businessman, and her three friends accuse Jack of rape, how can Addie or anyone else in town possibly believe in his innocence?
Salem Falls was my first read by Jodi Picoult, and I have to say, it did not disappoint. It was an intriguing, multi-layered, dramatic story steeped in small-town secrets and lies. Salem Falls was inspired by Arthur Miller's The Crucible, a story which I haven't read, but about which I'm now curious. In her interview at the end of the book, Ms. Picoult talks about how she wanted to update The Crucible, but also wanted to tell a story about how lies often spread faster than the truth and how it can be easier to believe those lies. I think the author succeeded beautifully in her mission. I consider myself to be a pretty open-minded person and would like to believe that I would be more like Addie, but if I were in the shoes of the townspeople or jurors in the story, I'm not entirely sure I would have believed Jack's story either. Even Addie and the few other people who ended up on Jack's side had their doubts about his innocence initially. I also felt that Ms. Picoult applied a very gentle hand and a fair approach when tackling the potentially controversial topics of witchcraft and rape. Somehow the author drew all the pieces and players together to craft an ingenious story that kept me engrossed throughout.
Salem Falls very much has an ensemble cast, but the story really centers around Jack St. Bride. He was a respected teacher at a girls' prep school, until a fateful event changed his life forever. A student allowed her father and other authority figures to believe she'd had a sexual relationship with Jack, which eventually led to him being charged with statutory rape. Thinking they had no chance of winning if the case went to trial, Jack's attorney advised him to accept a plea bargain in which he would plead guilty to a lesser charge. Although Jack hated doing it, he decided it was better than the alternative if they were to lose. The story begins with Jack being released from prison after spending eight months there, and now he's trying to begin a new life while working as a dishwasher in a small-town diner. From the beginning, I found Jack to be a very sympathetic character who definitely got a raw deal. I think an unjust charge of sexual assault can ruin a man more thoroughly then perhaps any other crime, and we see all the ways in which it affects his life, chief among them that nearly an entire town turns against him. Jack is described as physically attractive with a charming personality, but what made him most appealing to me was his intelligence. He has a PhD in history, and he's a major trivia buff who can answer nearly every Jeopardy question correctly. While Jack initially tried to keep to himself, his caring side showed through in his observance and intuitiveness of the people around him. The author adds layers to Jack's character by telling his life story backwards in flashbacks all the way back until the day he was born. Each little snippet added something to his character to help the reader see what made him the man he was in the present.
Another way that the author fleshes out Jack's character is through his romantic relationship with his boss and diner owner, Addie Peabody. Addie has suffered through multiple tragic events in her life, one of which could have given her every reason in the world not to trust Jack, but she does anyway, even after she finds out about his stint in prison. When the worst happens and Jack is accused of rape a second time, Addie initially has some doubts, wondering if she could have been wrong about him. She embarks on a fact-finding mission of her own, which eventually convinces her of Jack's innocence on all counts. From there, she becomes his steadfast rock throughout all the turmoil of the trial. I think a large part of her loyalty lies in her gratefulness to Jack for changing her life. When she and Jack first met, Addie seemed perfectly sane and normal on the outside, but inside, she's still buried in the pain of the past and having a hard time letting go. This grief manifests itself in an unusual way which leaves many of the townspeople thinking of her as crazy Addie. Jack sees beneath all that and gets to the heart of the matter, helping Addie to finally put her demons to rest, and in the process, he also helps her father who has a rather sordid history with alcohol.
As I mentioned before, Salem Falls has an extremely varied character palette and the reader gets to experience the story from many different angles. Next most important after Jack and Addie are the four girls who bring the second rape allegation against Jack. The de facto leader of the group, Gillian, is the instigator of pretty much all of their exploits and the one who suggested that they form their own coven. Some of the things they do as a group are relatively benign, while others, namely Gillian accusing Jack of raping her, have far-reaching effects. Gillian is almost as layered of a character as Jack and Addie. Most of the time, I wanted to dislike her, because I was fairly certain Jack didn't do what she was accusing him of. At the same time, when everything comes full-circle at the end, I felt sorry for her and wished there could have been a different ending for her. There were definitely more secrets that needed to come out. Another stand-out character is Jack's defense attorney, Jordan. I think he's going through a bit of a mid-life crisis when he's asked to step in as the court-appointed council. I know some people think of criminal lawyers as evil, because of how they sometimes are able to persuade a jury to acquit someone who is as guilty as sin, but I thought Jordan put a pretty good face on his profession. Readers get to see that he does it because he feels that everyone deserves their day in court and as good of a defense as he can muster. Most of the time he doesn't really care whether his client is guilty or innocent, but with Jack, this changes somewhat. Once Jordan really started buying Jack's innocence, I think he worked that much harder to make sure Jack wasn't sent to prison again. Jordan also gets to rekindle a romance with Selena, his top investigator and former lover. We also get a balanced view by seeing the other side of the courtroom through the eyes of Matt, the prosecutor, who is equally determined not to allow what he perceives as an injustice to occur. There are lots of other secondary characters who build a vibrant cast and bring the town of Salem Falls to life. In fact, the POV changes approx. every one to three pages, which at first, was a little hard to follow. I kept forgetting who certain characters were. With a little extra focus, I was finally able to keep everyone straight, and in the end, it was definitely worth the effort. The way all their lives slowly intertwined into a complex web was thoroughly intriguing.
In some ways, I think Jodi Picoult took a big risk by setting up a man who was accused of rape, not just once, but twice, as the actual victim, but I think it paid off in spades. I would never in a million years minimize the trauma experienced by actual rape victims, and I know that there are many who have never gotten justice for the crimes committed against them. However, we mustn't forget that there is a flip side to the coin in which some alleged perpetrators did not commit the crime of which they're accused and some have even done jail time for it. In my opinion, Jack's case followed a very believable chain of events that easily could have happened to a man in real life under similar circumstances. Much like the townspeople and even his lover, Addie, I occasionally doubted Jack's innocence. More than once, I asked myself, "Did he finally become the monster they made him out to be?" I think this was all part of the beauty of the storytelling, because we, as the readers, get to experience both sides of what was happening. I found my first foray into Jodi Picoult's work to be a highly satisfying feast for the intellect. It was an intense, thought-provoking drama which I'm still mulling over hours after turning the final page. Salem Falls isn't even one of Ms. Picoult's highest rated books overall, so I can only assume that some of her other books are even better than this one, although that's difficult to imagine after such an amazing read.
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