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Quite the pandemic twist

Angela Haupt

THE WASHINGTON POST – This story is part of a series for people who have already read the book and want to think more deeply about the ending. Major -spoilers for Wish You Were Here are ahead.

There haven’t yet been many COVID-19-inspired novels – thank goodness – which makes Jodi Picoult’s feat in Wish You Were Here all the more remarkable: She pulls off a pandemic twist that, even after two years of non-stop real-life twists, still manages to bewilder.

The novel opens on March 13, 2020 – and we all know what happened that day, the day “normal” went extinct. In Picoult’s fictional universe, art specialist at Sotheby’s Diana, and her boyfriend Finn are preparing to go on vacation to the Galápagos, where Diana expects him to propose. But Finn, who’s a surgical resident at New York-Presbyterian, declares he can no longer go: The hospital needs him to help fight this mysterious new virus that’s beginning to spread through the city. It should be gone in about two weeks (ha ha), so Finn urges his girlfriend to go anyway; she’d probably be safer on an isolated island than in the city.

So Diana sets off alone, which is difficult, because she loves Finn! Finn is great. The couple met cute when Diana broke her arm and Finn, who treated her in the emergency room, wrote his phone number on her cast. Their relationship is by all accounts idyllic: They have the same dreams for the future, including successful careers, two kids and a restored farmhouse upstate. They’ll get a purebred English springer spaniel and an Audi TT.

Nevertheless, when Diana arrives at Isabela Island in the Galápagos and is told it’s about to shut down, with one last ferry back to the mainland, she decides to stay. This, it quickly becomes apparent, was a mistake, because her hotel has closed and there’s not even reliable WiFi. By chance, a kind older woman who goes by Abuela offers her a place to stay.

After settling in, Diana, desperate for a snack, attempts to grab an apple from a giant tortoise breeding centre – and a handsome stranger stops her. “(BEGIN ITAL)Cuidado!(END ITAL)” he shouts (Spanish for “careful”), just in time. The apple is poisonous.

This, clearly, is another meet cute, though Diana doesn’t consider it such at the time. It turns out the man, Gabriel, is Abuela’s son, and over the coming weeks, he and Diana form a reluctant friendship with flirtatious undertones. Diana also becomes a confidante to Gabriel’s teenage daughter, Beatriz. The three bond as they explore the island, blissfully disconnected from the grim situation in New York that Finn describes in sporadic emails.

Eventually – more than a month into her stay on the island – Diana and Gabriel consummate their budding relationship. Things get awkward, so they meet at a beach to clean the slate and start fresh as friends. Except when Diana dives into the water, she’s pulled out to sea, leading to a dramatic scene in which she fights the current and feels her lungs start to burst.

Diana is gasping, gasping, fighting for air.

And then she wakes up. In the hospital. In New York City.

She’d been on a ventilator for five days, a tear-stricken Finn tells her, and almost died. “How did I get back from the Galapagos?” she asks, her voice a croak. “Diana, you never went.”

Pardon me as my jaw hits the floor and eyes pop out of my head. Ms Picoult, I’ll hand it to you: You got me good. There are unreliable narrators – which a discerning reader has at least a shot at detecting – and then there’s this trickery. I thought perhaps Finn would die of the virus, clearing the way for Diana and Gabriel to live happily ever after, relatively guilt-free.

Instead Picoult jolted both me and Diana out of a reality we’d both become attached to.

If I had a hard time letting go of the Galápagos, it’s miles worse for Diana: She can’t accept it was all just a dream – or, as the doctors suggest, a ventilator-induced hallucination. “I’ve lost time. And people. And maybe my mind,” she says, desperately longing for Gabriel and Beatriz. Finn gently reassures her: “A lot of Covid patients experience delirium when they’re taken off the vent.”

During the next few weeks, Diana vacillates between dreaming of her Galápagos companions and accepting care from Finn, who dotes on his girlfriend. One main tension haunts the couple: Diana can’t get over the fact that, the night before she became sick, Finn urged her to go on vacation alone. He breaks into tears while begging for her forgiveness: “You said if I really loved you, I wouldn’t let you out of my sight when all hell was breaking loose. The truth is, I made a mistake. I spoke without really thinking it through.” Well, fair enough! None of us knew how to behave at the start of the pandemic. Two years in, we still don’t. But it appears the misunderstanding is going to doom the couple.

When Diana is finally released from the hospital, she focusses on rebuilding her strength and reevaluating her future. She considers going back to school and pursuing a new career – art therapy – and combs online message boards for COVID survivors describing the weird dreams they had while on a ventilator. She fixates on the idea that she survived COVID for a reason: “If I was so sick that it nearly cost me my life… I would like to believe that there is an explanation. That it isn’t random or the luck of the draw. That this was a lesson for me, or a wake-up call.”

I absolutely understand this. By all means, Diana, refocus your life! Pledge to be kinder.

Volunteer. Live truthfully and admirably. What doesn’t make sense is suddenly falling out of love with the long-term partner you were, a mere month or two ago, crazy about. But that’s exactly what happens: When Finn proposes to Diana on a park bench, she rejects his offer.

“Finn has always been my anchor,” she muses. “The problem is that anchors don’t just keep you from floating away. Sometimes, they drag you down.” Finn doesn’t understand: “Isn’t this what you want? What we planned?” Diana’s response is cutting: “You can’t plan your life, Finn… Because then you have a plan. Not a life.”

I couldn’t wrap my head around Diana’s sudden aversion to planning, especially as she was… making plans to go back to school and generally reworking her life. And yes, while people fall out of love with their perfectly nice significant others all the time, Diana’s abrupt turn against Finn felt nonsensical; Picoult didn’t make a compelling case why we should root against him, or against them together.

Nevertheless, the epilogue reveals that Diana is thriving as an art therapist and Finn is engaged to a nurse. In 2023 – an apparently pandemic-free year – she travels to the Galápagos, making her way to the tortoise breeding centre. As she attempts to climb over the wall into the facility, her sneaker slips, and she starts to fall. Cuidado!” the handsome non-stranger shouts.

That’s the end of the novel – but only the beginning of my questions. Will Gabriel recognise Diana? Is his name even Gabriel? Is she going to inform him she knows him, that she had a dream about him? Can we even trust that she’s really there this time?

Even if the two do hit it off in real life, there’s no reason to believe that Diana won’t suddenly, without a convincing motive, change her mind and upend her life again. Perhaps someone needs to warn him: “Cuidado.”