Book Reviews

Review Rating

With the October 2004 review, we began rating the books on the basis of one to four trowels; 
one trowel= don’t bother, to four trowels= run right out to your local book store and buy the hard cover!

Back to all reviews

The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult

Reviewed on: March 1, 2023


Ballantine Books:  New York
2020 (HC)

Once upon a time Dawn McDowell Edelstein had dreamed of being world-renowned Egyptologist.  She, in fact, followed that dream as a young woman—first, as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, and then as a doctoral candidate Yale University.  It is as a graduate assistant at a Yale-sponsored excavation at Deir El-Bersha that her star as a clever and insightful up and coming Egyptologist manifests itself, and perhaps just as significantly, she falls in love with fellow Ph.D. candidate and scion of an aristocratic British family, Wyatt Armstrong.  A hint of her potential as a brilliant scholar is manifest as she dives deeply into her dissertation subject:  the Middle Kingdom’s (c. 2000 B.C.E.) iconography in the Book of Two Ways, a veritable map of the afterlife.

After three seasons of excavations and research in Egypt, Dawn’s dreams of academic stardom crashed and burned when her mother’s succumbing to ovarian cancer forced Dawn to drop out of the program and to help her mother as well as care for her still school-age younger brother.  Her experiences with her mother’s last days in hospice led to an alternative career path as she pursued a Master’s Degree in Social Work and became a highly respected “death doula”—a sort of midwife for individuals who are dying from incurable disease or affliction, and desire help in the transition between life and death.

Fifteen years have passed since leaving Egypt; a husband and daughter and career fill her days.  But then a near-death experience in an airliner crash brings either clarity or madness to Dawn’s existence.  Instead of returning  home to a daughter and a dedicated, albeit philandering, husband, Dawn flies into Cairo and on to Deir El-Bersha—seeking Wyatt Armstrong, who now heads up the Yale excavations, and yearning to resume her research.

Dawn quickly recovers her skills as an epigrapher on Wyatt’s excavation, which has, after more than fifteen years, unearthed the find of a life-time:  the tomb of Djehutynakht, an important Middle Kingdom figure in the Pharaoh’s inner circle.  She also recovers the burning passion for Wyatt that had simmered all through her years as a mother to Meret and wife to physicist Brian.  In beautifully rendered prose, author Picoult chronicles the agonies of conscience and desire that afflict Dawn as she tries to navigate her personal “book of two ways.”  This novel, which explores multiple dimensions of the human condition, serves as a metaphor for seeking a life well-lived while at the same time grappling with an unfinished past.

The author exhibits a wonderful sense of the realities of archaeological excavations and dig site life in a distant land.  The authenticity of the narrative is due, without doubt, to the editorial contributions and influence of Dr. Colleen Darnell, the colorful and much-published Yale Egyptologist who provided the attention to archaeological detail that adds so very much to the quality of this novel.

Four enthusiastic trowels for this sensitive and appealing study of a young woman who must struggle with her own “book of two ways.”

Post script:  I would like to thank my daughter-in-law, Dr. Anjali Arora Gresens, for bringing both this book and this author to my attention.  My reading experience would have been notably poorer had she not introduced me to this novel.