A Spark of Light

A Spark of Light

by Jodi Picoult


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#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The author of Small Great Things returns with a powerful and provocative new novel about ordinary lives that intersect during a heart-stopping crisis.

“Picoult at her fearless best . . . Timely, balanced and certain to inspire debate.”—The Washington Post

The warm fall day starts like any other at the Center—a women’s reproductive health services clinic—its staff offering care to anyone who passes through its doors. Then, in late morning, a desperate and distraught gunman bursts in and opens fire, taking all inside hostage.

After rushing to the scene, Hugh McElroy, a police hostage negotiator, sets up a perimeter and begins making a plan to communicate with the gunman. As his phone vibrates with incoming text messages he glances at it and, to his horror, finds out that his fifteen-year-old daughter, Wren, is inside the clinic.

But Wren is not alone. She will share the next and tensest few hours of her young life with a cast of unforgettable characters: A nurse who calms her own panic in order to save the life of a wounded woman. A doctor who does his work not in spite of his faith but because of it, and who will find that faith tested as never before. A pro-life protester, disguised as a patient, who now stands in the crosshairs of the same rage she herself has felt. A young woman who has come to terminate her pregnancy. And the disturbed individual himself, vowing to be heard.

Told in a daring and enthralling narrative structure that counts backward through the hours of the standoff, this is a story that traces its way back to what brought each of these very different individuals to the same place on this fateful day.

One of the most fearless writers of our time, Jodi Picoult tackles a complicated issue in this gripping and nuanced novel. How do we balance the rights of pregnant women with the rights of the unborn they carry? What does it mean to be a good parent? A Spark of Light will inspire debate, conversation . . . and, hopefully, understanding.

Look in the back of the book for reader’s discussion questions and a conversation with Jodi Picoult.

Praise for A Spark of Light

“This is Jodi Picoult at her best: tackling an emotional hot-button issue and putting a human face on it.”People
“Told backward and hour by hour, Jodi Picoult’s compelling narrative deftly explores controversial social issues.”Us Weekly

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345545008
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/24/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 4,618
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)
Lexile: HL790L (what's this?)

About the Author

Jodi Picoult is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of twenty-three novels, including Small Great Things, Leaving Time, The Storyteller, Lone Wolf, Sing You Home, House Rules, Handle with Care, Change of Heart, Nineteen Minutes, and My Sister’s Keeper. She is also the author, with daughter Samantha van Leer, of two young adult novels, Between the Lines and Off the Page. Picoult lives in New Hampshire.


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

The Center squatted on the corner of Juniper and Montfort behind a wrought-iron gate, like an old bulldog used to guarding its territory. At one point, there had been many like it in Mississippi— nondescript, unassuming buildings where services were provided and needs were met. Then came the restrictions that were designed to make these places go away: The halls had to be wide enough to accommodate two passing gurneys; any clinic where that wasn’t the case had to shut down or spend thousands on reconstruction. The doctors had to have admitting privileges at local hospitals—even though most were from out of state and couldn’t secure them—or the clinics where they practiced risked closing, too. One by one the clinics shuttered their windows and boarded up their doors. Now, the Center was a unicorn—a small rectangle of a structure painted a fluorescent, flagrant orange, like a flag to those who had traveled hundreds of miles to find it. It was the color of safety; the color of warning. It said: I’m here if you need me. It said, Do what you want to me; I’m not going.
The Center had suffered scars from the cuts of politicians and the barbs of protesters. It had licked its wounds and healed. At one point it had been called the Center for Women and Reproductive Health. But there were those who believed if you do not name a thing, it ceases to exist, and so its title was amputated, like a war injury. But still, it survived. First it became the Center for Women. And then, just: the Center.
The label fit. The Center was the calm in the middle of a storm of ideology. It was the sun of a universe of women who had run out of time and had run out of choices, who needed a beacon to look up to.
And like other things that shine so hot, it had a magnetic pull. Those in need found it the lodestone for their navigation. Those who despised it could not look away.
Today, Wren McElroy thought, was not a good day to die. She knew that other fifteen-year-old girls romanticized the idea of dying for love, but Wren had read Romeo and Juliet last year in eighth-grade English and didn’t see the magic in waking up in a crypt beside your boyfriend, and then plunging his dagger into your own ribs. And Twilight—forget it. She had listened to teachers paint the stories of heroes whose tragic deaths somehow enlarged their lives rather than shrinking them. When Wren was six, her grandmother had died in her sleep. Strangers had said over and over that dying in your sleep was a blessing, but as she stared at her nana, waxen white in the open coffin, she didn’t understand why it was a gift. What if her grandmother had gone to bed the night before thinking, In the morning, I’ll water that orchid. In the morning, I’ll read the rest of that novel. I’ll call my son. So much left unfinished. No, there was just no way dying could be spun into a good thing.
Her grandmother was the only dead person Wren had ever seen, until two hours ago. Now, she could tell you what dying looked like, as opposed to just dead. One minute, Olive had been there, staring so fierce at Wren—as if she could hold on to the world if her eyes stayed open—and then, in a beat, those eyes stopped being windows and became mirrors, and Wren saw only a reflection of her own panic.
She didn’t want to look at Olive anymore, but she did. The dead woman was lying down like she was taking a nap, a couch cushion under her head. Olive’s shirt was soaked with blood, but had ridden up on the side, revealing her ribs and waist. Her skin was pale on top and then lavender, with a thin line of deep violet where her back met the floor. Wren realized that was because Olive’s blood was settling inside, just two hours after she’d passed. For a second, Wren thought she was going to throw up.
She didn’t want to die like Olive, either.
Which, given the circumstances, made Wren a horrible person. The odds were highly unlikely, but if Wren had to choose, she would die in a black hole. It would be instant and it would be epic. Like, literally, you’d be ripped apart at the atomic level. You’d become stardust.
Wren’s father had taught her that. He bought her her first telescope, when she was five. He was the reason she’d wanted to be an astronaut when she was little, and an astrophysicist as soon as she learned what one was. He himself had had dreams of commanding a space shuttle that explored every corner of the universe, until he got a girl pregnant. Instead of going to grad school, he had married Wren’s mom and become a cop and then a detective and had explored every corner of Jackson, Mississippi, instead. He told Wren that working for NASA was the best thing that never happened to him.
When they were driving back from her grandmother’s funeral, it had snowed. Wren—a child who’d never seen weather like that in Mississippi before—had been terrified by the way the world swirled, unmoored. Her father had started talking to her: Mission Specialist McElroy, activate the thrusters. When she wouldn’t stop crying, he began punching random buttons: the air-conditioning, the four-way flashers, the cruise control. They lit up red and blue like a command center at Mission Control. Misison Specialist McElroy, her father said, prepare for hyperspace. Then he flicked on his brights, so that the snow became a tunnel of speeding stars, and Wren was so amazed she forgot to be scared.
She wished she could flick a switch now, and travel back in time. She wished she had told her dad she was coming here.
She wished she had let him talk her out of it.
She wished she hadn’t asked her aunt to bring her.
Aunt Bex might even now be lying in a morgue, like Olive, her body becoming a rainbow. And it was all Wren’s fault.
You, said the man with a gun, his voice dragging Wren back to the here and now. He had a name, but she didn’t want to even think of it. It made him human and he wasn’t human; he was a monster. While she’d been lost in thought, he’d come to stand in front of her. Now, he jerked the pistol at her. Get up.
The others held their breath with her. They had, in the past few hours, become a single organism. Wren’s thoughts moved in and out of the other women’s minds. Her fear stank on their skin.
Blood still bloomed from the bandage the man had wrapped around his hand. It was the tiniest of triumphs. It was the reason Wren could stand up, even though her legs were jelly.
She shouldn’t have come to the Center.
She should have stayed a little girl.
Because now she might not live to become anything else.
Wren heard the hammer click and closed her eyes. All she could picture was her father’s face—the blue-jean eyes, the gentle bend of his smile—as he looked up at the night sky.
When George Goddard was five years old, his mama tried to set his daddy on fire. His father had been passed out on the couch when his mother poured the lighter fluid over his dirty laundry, lit a match, and dumped the flaming bin on top of him. The big man reared up, screaming, batting at the flames with his ham hands. George’s mama stood a distance away with a glass of water. Mabel, his daddy screamed. Mabel! But his mama calmly drank every last drop, sparing none to extinguish the flames. When George’s father ran out of the house to roll in the dirt like a hog, his mama turned to him. Let that be a lesson to you, she said.
He had not wanted to grow up like his daddy, but in the way that an apple seed can’t help but become an apple tree, he had not become the best of husbands. He knew that now. It was why he had resolved to be the best of fathers. It was why, this morning, he had driven all this way to the Center, the last standing abortion clinic in the state of Mississippi.
What they’d taken away from his daughter she would never get back, whether she realized it now or not. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t exact a price.
He looked around the waiting room. Three women were huddled on a line of seats, and at their feet was the nurse, who was checking the bandage of the doctor. George scoffed. Doctor, my ass. What he did wasn’t healing, not by any stretch of the imagination. He should have killed the guy—would have killed the guy—if he hadn’t been interrupted when he first arrived and started firing.
He thought about his daughter sitting in one of those chairs. He wondered how she’d gotten here. If she had taken a bus. If a friend had driven her or (he could not even stand to think of it) the boy who’d gotten her in trouble. He imagined himself in an alternate universe, bursting through the door with his gun, seeing her in the chair next to the pamphlets about how to recognize an STD. He would have grabbed her hand and pulled her out of there.
What would she think of him, now that he was a killer?
How could he go back to her?
How could he go back, period?
Eight hours ago this had seemed like a holy crusade—an eye for an eye, a life for a life.
His wound had a heartbeat. George tried to adjust the binding of the gauze around it with his teeth, but it was unraveling. It should have been tied off better, but who here was going to help him?
The last time he had felt like this, like the walls were closing in on him, he had taken his infant daughter—red and screaming with a fever he didn’t know she had and wouldn’t have known how to treat— and gone looking for help. He had driven until his truck ran out of gas—it was past one a.m., but he started walking—and continued until he found the only building with a light on inside, and an unlocked door. It was flat-roofed and unremarkable—he hadn’t known it was a church until he stepped inside and saw the benches and the wooden relief of Jesus on the cross. The lights he had seen outside were candles, flickering on an altar. Come back, he had said out loud to his wife, who was probably halfway across the country by now. Maybe he was tired, maybe he was delusional, but he very clearly heard a reply: I’m already with you. The voice whispered from the wooden Jesus and at the same time from the darkness all around him.
George’s conversion had been that simple, and that enveloping. Somehow, he and his girl had fallen asleep on the carpeted floor. In the morning, Pastor Mike was shaking him awake. The pastor’s wife was cooing at his baby. There was a groaning table of food, and a miraculously spare room. Back then, George hadn’t been a religious man. It wasn’t Jesus that entered his heart that day. It was hope.
Hugh McElroy, the hostage negotiator George had been talking to for hours, said George’s daughter would know he had been trying to protect her. He’d promised that if George cooperated, this could still end well, even though George knew that outside this building were men with rifles trained on the door just waiting for him to emerge.
George wanted this to be over. Really, he did. He was exhausted mentally and physically and it was hard to figure out an endgame. He was sick of the crying. He wanted to skip ahead to the part where he was sitting by his daughter again, and she was looking up at him with wonder, the way she used to.
But George also knew Hugh would say anything to get him to surrender to the police. It wasn’t even just his job. Hugh McElroy needed him to release the hostages for the same reason that George had taken them in the first place—to save the day.
That’s when George figured out what he was going to do. He pulled back the hammer on the gun. “Get up. You,” he said, pointing to the girl with the name of a bird, the one who had stabbed him. The one he would use to teach Hugh McElroy a lesson.

Reading Group Guide

1. The story is narrated from the points of view of ten different characters. Why do you think the author chose to include so many different perspectives? Was there a voice that you connected to most strongly? Did you have difficulty connecting with any characters?

2. Regardless of their feelings on the issue of abortion, many characters are preoccupied with being a good parent. Why do you think it means to be a good parent?

3. Initially, Joy and Janine seem to stand on opposite sides of the pro-life/pro-choice debate. By the end, do you think they have found common ground? Do you understand where each one is coming from? Is it possible to form a connection with someone with opposing viewpoints and still maintain a commitment to one’s own beliefs?

4. At one point, Rachel, the employee who escaped from the Center, accuses Allen and his fellow protestors of being responsible for the hostage crisis situation: “If people like you didn’t spout the bullshit you do, people like him wouldn’t exist.” Is this a fair accusation? Is there a point at which one does not have the right to voice one’s beliefs? If so, where should that line be drawn?

5. Did your feelings about the issue of abortion evolve during the reading of this novel, and, if so, how?

6. By the end of the book, we discover that these characters’ lives are interwoven in more ways than one and that each individual has a deeper story than we expected. Were you surprised by any of the interconnections? Which twist struck you the most strongly?

7. Did anything about Jodi’s research surprise you? What did you learn?

8. Did Jodi’s Author Note change your reading experience at all?

9. A Spark of Light is different than the traditional novel structure. How did you feel about the events of the story unfolding backwards? Did this structure affect your reading experience?

Customer Reviews

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A Spark of Light (B&N Exclusive Edition) 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 99 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
NO SPOILERS Very thought-provoking and realistic. Highly recommend. I wanted to address some of the other reviews though... The "backwards" timeline: I liked this approach, really makes the reader pay attention to the storyline. The "agenda": I feel like both sides of the issue were fairly represented. I am as right-leaning as you can get without being a true "conservative", but I am also very far from liberal and I feel like Picoult accurately portrayed the fundamentals of both sides of this issue. The "twists": I saw both major "twists" coming from pretty early in the book, but that didn't make reading this any less enjoyable. The ending: Many reviewers complained about an abrupt ending. If you pay attention throughout the story, you have a pretty good idea about what the characters are going to do next, if not what exactly is in store for the Center itself. Bottom line, no matter which side of the fence your opinions lie (especially if you are somewhat ON the fence) this is an interesting story that weaves together many individual stories.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very compelling read no matter which side of the issue you stand.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have read all of Picoult’s books. This felt rushed and poorly planned. The best thing about her previous writings is that you couldn’t tell which side she was on. With this, there is an obvious agenda. Incredibly disappointed in my favorite author.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thin plot. Not a book to entertain, just advance agenda. Disappointing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I've read every one of Jodi Picoult's books and this is her most disappointing. The reverse timeline and embedded storylines were really difficult to follow and the end was very predictable. Definitely not the book to start with if you've never read her work. I will never give up reading her books, I'm just disappointed I have to wait so long for another good one.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have read most of Jodi Picolt books because she is one of my favorite authors. This one really made me think.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Riveting and timely!
cloggiedownunder More than 1 year ago
A Spark of Light is the twenty-third novel by popular American author, Jodi Picoult. In Jackson, Mississippi, a women’s clinic that provides, amongst other services, abortions is targeted daily by pro-life campaigners. They harass the staff and the clients as they enter and leave. But today is different: a gunman has entered the building and begun shooting. Trained police hostage negotiator, Detective Lieutenant Hugh McElroy is soon on the scene to talk to the gunman, but within minutes learns that his daughter, Wren and his sister, Bex are inside the clinic along with other innocent hostages. As he tries to reason with the shooter, those inside struggle to help the injured without further enraging their captor. The day’s events, as they unfold over ten hours, are told in reverse, with an epilogue resolving the dramatic end of the first chapter. As the story follows the path that directs each character to their destiny at the Clinic, their thoughts and dialogue give the reader a deep appreciation of their nature, their challenges, their passions. The shooter’s motivation and the series of events that leads up to his shocking actions illustrates how easily misunderstanding, desperation, a deficit of compassion and happenstance together can end in tragedy. Picoult never hesitates to tackle controversial topics, nor does she in this latest work. The main issue is, of course, abortion, but many other related topics feature: the legal obstacles, the reason doctors and nurses work in these clinics, the for and against arguments, the situations where abortion seems appropriate, the fallacies that are spouted by pro-lifers, inequity between laws that protect the foetus and those protecting the mother, the legal inconsistencies between states, the import of illegal abortion drugs from China, and even the semantics surrounding the issue. While many will feel that her treatment of the topic is balanced, Picoult’s latest novel is bound to polarise readers. The depth of her research is apparent and she backs it up with an extensive bibliography. In the Author’s Note, Picoult gives a succinct quote regards pro-lifer activities from a woman who has had an abortion: “I don’t need people shaming me because of a choice that already hurt my heart to have to make.” Picoult gives the reader yet another informative, insightful and thought-provoking read. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by Allen & Unwin.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I've read every one of this author's books and there was a time when I labeled her a favorite. That has changed with some of her more recent novels, and this last one is definitely my least favorite, due to both the writing style and the politically charged agenda. I started to skim through the pages more and more as the book progressed, because it began to irritate me more and more. Too much jumping back and forth and too little substance. I'm sorry I spent the money on this unsatisfying read.
julie-51 More than 1 year ago
I feel like I just walked in to the middle of a movie. I'm a huge fan but this one I could not get in to.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A thought provoking book as most of Jodi Pacoult books are.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not one of her best books. Abrupt ending. Thin storyline. Very disappointed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Abrupt ending... Really needed more closure! So unsatisfying.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Written gracefully & medically accurate, this is a book about so much more than abortion. It's worth it to read the thoughts written at the end of the book, as they offer statistics, facts, first-hand knowledge, and viable ideas for both pro-choicers AND for pro-lifers.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
bookaholique More than 1 year ago
Here is what I like about Jodi Picoult's writing. She takes a topic - in this case abortion - and then creates a story with characters that represent all sides of the debate on that topic. I frequently end her novels with at least a better understanding of opinions that differ from mine. She writes with intelligence and compassion. I actually ended up liking all the characters in this story - even the "bad guy". This has happened to me before with her writing. The people in this book all have legitimate points of view. There is a saying that came to mind when I read this story - just because I don't agree, that doesn't make me right. A thought provoking page turner. I received this book from Random House - Ballantine via Netgally. My thanks to both.
Anonymous 5 months ago
Same as everyone. Read all her books. But i hated to have to spend even more time on a book I just did not like. So I read the parts that were about the hostage situation backwards to see if i could make more sense of this story. It shouldn't have to be work to read a book. Yes the subject matter was thought provoking but if anyone read the Author's note at the end. I just did not think it was necessary for her to write that when she was pregnant with her third child she was so happy but if the pregnancy had happened when she was in college she would have aborted. How would you feel if you were that child? I'm just saying she went too far with her "making a statement".
Anonymous 8 months ago
I have read all of the author's books and was disappointed. The characters were not as well-developed as most of her other books and the plot was not as compelling.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved this book! Couldn’t put it down! Best Author ever!
marquis784MA More than 1 year ago
A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult October 2, 2018 Fiction I received this digital ARC from NetGalley and Ballantine Books in exchange for an unbiased review. This is a very powerful book which delves into the delicate and controversial topic of abortion. The method of reverse story telling seemed effective initially but became confusing as more characters were added to the story. Each character has his/her own history and beliefs which allow for a multidimensional plot. When Hugh McElroy woke up on his birthday he has no idea what challenges he would face on a seemingly ordinary day. As a police detective experienced with hostage negotiations, Hugh was prepared when the call came in for assistance at the Center. Things become more personal when he realizes that his 15 year old daughter, Wren and her aunt Bex are among the hostages in the reproductive health clinic. There are many twists and turns as each person’s life and reason for being at the Center that day is revealed. Each person has a separate story which brings them all together to eventually unite during this shared tragedy. Ultimately, we are all entitled to our beliefs and trying to force those values on to other people will always be counterproductive to the initial goal. Our values and ethics are often challenged by unexpected life events to which we might never imagine. No one has the right to judge or condemn another person’s right to choose what’s best.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Normally I LOVE Jodi Picoult books, and she is a book club favorite. However, this one was hard to get through. I don't mean "hard" from the topic the book addresses. I mean "hard" in that the book was overly repetitive. The idea of the book counting backwards from a timeline was interesting at first, but before long, I was cringing every time the narrator called out the previous hour. In my opinion, Jodi has written better. This was not one of her better novels.
CharJones2525 More than 1 year ago
I’ve been an avid Picoult reader from the beginning, entranced as she takes the most current societal challenges and turns them into compelling fiction. In her newest, staff and patients are taken hostage in an abortion clinic, and in a creative time bend, the story unfolds backward, with happenings revealed from the perspective of a nurse, a doctor, a pro-life protestor, the hostage taker, the police negotiator and his young daughter — a patient there unbeknownst to him. Gripping from first to last in trademark Picoult fashion. 5/5 Pub Date 02 Oct 2018. Thanks to the author, Random House Publishing Group - Ballantine and NetGalley for the review copy. Opinions are mine. #AsparkOfLight #NetGalley
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great read!
Meemo_B More than 1 year ago
What an interesting book, and a somewhat difficult one to review. The subject matter (abortion) is a polarizing one, but then again most of the subjects Jodi Picoult tackles are difficult and often polarizing ones. So I went into it knowing that - fortunately I also knew that this was written with a bit of a twist - the timeline runs backwards, chapter by chapter. I'm glad I knew that, because even armed with that knowledge, at times it was a bit confusing. There's plenty of thought-provoking content for the reader, characters and ideas on both sides of the issue for readers on both sides of the issue to (hopefully) ponder and consider. At turns both heartbreaking and hopeful, this one might not end up being my favorite Jodi Picoult read, but I'm very glad I read it. My thanks to Netgalley and Random House/Ballantine Books for providing a copy for an unbiased review.