STORY DOULA Jodi Picoult was getting ready for the evening’s virtual event — a conversation with Kevin Kwan — when she got a call from her editor, letting her know that her 27th novel, “The Book of Two Ways,” had debuted at No. 1 on the hardcover fiction list. “It was a really nice moment in a really bad year,” says the veteran author. “I was terrified about publishing a book during a pandemic, but this one has rejiggered itself in my mind to be perfect pandemic reading.”
Ten years ago, when Picoult’s son was majoring in Egyptology at Yale, he translated the “Book of Two Ways,” which is a 4,000-year-old road map to the underworld. She says, “I walked by him, looked at the title and said, ‘Great name for a novel.’” She did some digging and learned that the mystical text was all about choices: “The deceased could take either a land route or a water route to get to the field of offerings, which is the ancient Egyptian version of heaven. No matter which path you took, you wound up where you were supposed to be.”
That’s when the wheels started turning. Picoult envisioned a middle-aged woman who braces for impact as her plane is crashing and is surprised by what flashes before her eyes. Instead of the life she’s on her way home to — in Boston, married to a guy named Brian, working as a death doula — she sees the life she thought she’d have: with a career in Egyptology, in love with a man she hasn’t seen in 15 years. “She has to decide: What do I do with this information?” says Picoult, who scheduled a research trip to Egypt and had to cancel it because of the Arab Spring. She put the idea aside.
At her son’s wedding four years ago, Picoult struck up a conversation with his thesis adviser, a renowned Egyptologist: “I said, ‘I still want to write that book,’ and she said, ‘I’ll take you to Egypt.’” Picoult also immersed herself in the world of death doulas — “They help people journey out of this world the way a birth doula helps someone journey into it” — and then worked on “The Book of Two Ways” while on book tour in 2018. (“I remember I had this weird meta moment on a plane, writing about a plane going down.”)
Now at No. 5, the novel is now in its second week as a best seller. Picoult says the response has been heartening: “People who have lost relatives to Covid have said this book has been very healing for them, and transformative. We’re all thinking about what we’ve lost. We’re all imagining a world where this isn’t happening.”
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